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Winnipeg gets stronger down the middle with Kevin Hayes trade

The Jets grab the big New York Rangers pivot, strengthening their forward corps for a run at the Stanley Cup. On the other side, the Blueshirts continue to rebuild the right way with a growing number of high draft picks.

The Winnipeg Jets have their second-line center. Kevin Hayes comes over from the Rangers, much like Paul Stastny was brought in last year at the deadline from St. Louis. We always knew the Jets were going for it and in acquiring Hayes, they really cement a forward corps that was already pretty intimidating.

Hayes, who is a pending unrestricted free agent this summer, fetches a decent return for their rental, in the form of a first-round draft pick in 2019 and left winger Brendan Lemieux, plus a conditional fourth-rounder in 2022.

At 6-foot-5, 216 pounds, Hayes brings a fantastic frame and reach to the table, but clearly he is more than that. A versatile player who can complement skill guys, Hayes allows Bryan Little to move down to a lesser role down the middle and we know Winnipeg has the wingers (Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers for example) to do damage with Hayes at center.

While Winnipeg has always been one of the Stanley Cup contenders in the West, the Jets haven’t been the worldbeaters that many expected. Luckily for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, he has built a very exciting pipeline over the years and the Jets could certainly afford to spare the first-rounder and Lemieux.

Perhaps what is most exciting for the Jets is how their depth improves with Hayes in the lineup, specifically with the bottom six. Jack Roslovic certainly won’t get bumped, but if the Jets need him to play wing instead of center, he has that capability and has excelled in that role in the past thanks to his speed.

For the Rangers, GM Jeff Gorton continues to rebuild the right way, adding another first-rounder to his team’s coffers. New York made two picks in the 2017 first round, then three this past summer. The Rangers now have two for 2019, but also potentially two others if Tampa wins the Cup and Dallas makes the third round (otherwise those picks are second-rounders).

Given how well the Rangers have drafted so far, this bodes well for the future.

In Lemieux, New York gets an agitator with NHL experience and bloodlines (he’s Claude’s kid) who can play right away. The ceiling isn’t super-high, but Lemieux can be a serviceable player in the short-term and a relatively inexpensive one at that - he’s coming off his entry-level deal and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

What would have made this trade a huge win for the Rangers is if they could have pried a bigger prize out of Winnipeg, like a Kristian Vesalainen or even Roslovic himself, but given that Hayes is a “rental,” it’s understandable that it didn’t come to that.

Will this be enough to put Winnipeg over the top? They’ll probably have to go through Nashville in the second round and that will be the de facto Western Conference final again. But the Jets could afford to lose their first-rounder in this deal because their window is now and Hayes puts them in a good position to make that run.

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