As the season has gone on, Kevin Hayes has taken a more prominent role with the New York Rangers. Centering the third line and producing offensively, Hayes has turned out to be the all-round best free agent acquisition of the 2014 off-season.
By the time the 2016 draft ends, the New York Rangers will have gone four straight years without a first-round pick. But when you have Glen Sather’s recent track record when it comes to first-rounders, you could argue the Rangers are far better off with the established players they have in their lineup than uncertain prospects.
And really, when you can bring in an NHL-ready player such as Kevin Hayes into your lineup, who needs a first-round pick? Hayes likely won’t receive final-three consideration for the Calder Trophy – although with the sagging fortunes of Filip Forsberg and the rising ones of guys such as Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and Hayes, perhaps it’s time for a Calder race reboot – but you could argue that he should win the award as the best free agent signing of the summer of 2014.
Jarome Iginla has been his usual productive self in Colorado. Radim Vrbata has been a great find for the Vancouver Canucks. Blake Comeau has surprised in Pittsburgh and Ryan Miller and Mathieu Perreault were making a positive impact before being injured. But given his age and upside, Hayes is looking like the crown jewel of last summer.
The Rangers, as they are wont to do, dipped their toes in the conventional free agent market by signing Dan Boyle to a two-year deal worth $9 million. They also signed Tanner Glass and the since-traded Lee Stempniak and it’s safe to say none of them has been a success. The fact the Rangers went out and dealt another first-round pick and gave up prized prospect Anthony Duclair to get Keith Yandle at the deadline is a testament to how the Boyle signing has not worked out as the Rangers hoped it would.
But it was their approach to U.S. college guys that was more intriguing. They went after all the big ones and got them, signing Hayes along with Ryan Haggerty from RPI, Mat Bodie from Union College and Chris McCarthy from Vermont. Haggerty and Bodie are in the American League and McCarthy in the ECHL, while Hayes is thriving as the third line center on the varsity squad playing between Carl Hagelin and J.T. Miller. Even if Hayes is the only one of the college guys to work out, the Rangers have still hit the jackpot.
There is a certain element of risk in signing late-blooming college free agents, which is to say that the overwhelming majority of them don’t work out. But unlike the other three free agents the Rangers signed, Hayes was drafted, in the first round, in fact, by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. But when Hayes looked at the depth chart both at right wing and center in Chicago, he took a page from Justin Schultz’s book and went to an organization where he had a better chance to play right away.
And that chance couldn’t come just anywhere. The Rangers have the luxury of not having to worry about money and when the opportunity came to use one of their compliance buyouts, they did so on Brad Richards, paying him $20 million to not play hockey for them after already paying him $33 million for three years of service. And who says the rich teams don’t have an advantage in the salary cap age?
Hayes was seen as more of a replacement on right wing for Benoit Pouliot than at center for Richards, but it’s interesting how things work out. The Rangers don’t have a lot of depth down the middle and Hayes has stepped in and filled the role the organization seemed to have reserved for Miller, who ironically is Hayes’ right winger on the third line.
And things have worked out. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, Hayes gives the Rangers that very, very big man down the middle they lost when Brian Boyle signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning, with more offensive panache than Boyle had. To be sure, Hayes gained some notoriety for his hands and agility with this goal against the New York Islanders earlier this week.
As far as rookies go, Hayes is 20 points behind the freshmen leaders in the scoring race, but since Jan. 1, has respectable 8-11-19 totals in 31 games. In the same time, Forsberg has just 7-11-18 in 32 games and Johnny Gaudreau, Hayes’ linemate from Boston College, has 6-14-20 to show for his past 28 games.
It’s unlikely Hayes will hit any of his rookie performance bonuses – unless he gets seven goals down the stretch and finishes with 20, in which case he’d get $212,500 added to his $900,000 base salary – but next season could certainly be a different story. And unlike most other rookies, he’s only on a two-year entry-level deal, meaning the Rangers could start working on an extension for him as early as this summer.
That might be a wise move for Sather. If he does, it will be the second good call he’s made on Kevin Hayes.