Derek Stepan is coming. Yesterday the New York Rangers sent down Chris Mueller in order to make room for Stepan to return to action Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That noise you hear is a welcomed sigh of relief as the Rangers start their slow and steady march off the IR and back into daily action. Stepan's return doesn't just give the Rangers their first line center back, but it also brings back one of the team's best defensive forwards and moves Martin St. Louis back to his natural position on the wing. When you take a look at just how much changes with Stepan's return, you realize how important he was in the first place.
Stepan's return came at a price, however. Alain Vigneault needed to figure out which player needed to be sent down to fit Stepan back in the lineup. Vigneault made the right decision, keeping Kevin Hayes up and sending Mueller down.
When you watch Hayes play you see the potential he has. Flames of brilliance where the light shines brightly enough that you can see how special he might be. He's huge, skates well for his size and has offensive instincts you can't teach.
Hayes biggest issue? He doesn't feel the NHL game yet. And that's OK.
Back in August Evan -- who covers college hockey for SB Nation -- gave us an inside look on when Hayes started figuring things out in college. This is from his story (emphasis mine). Tell me if any of it sounds familiar:
If you're looking for when Hayes' season went on a dramatic upswing, it was that early season meeting against Northeastern, and not when Hayes joined forces with Hobey Baker winner Johnny Gaudreau. It was when Hayes began to really play within his strengths, and with an edge.
"I caught the [defense] flat-footed and took them wide," said Hayes after the game, describing his goal. "Coach has been hopping on me to be more of a power forward and not be so finesse out there.
"I just drove to the net, and I was lucky enough that the goalie came back inside, and I put it in."
Jerry York, BC's head coach, echoed his instructions to his senior forward; that he had been instructing Hayes to be a more north-south player. The instructions proved to be quite useful.
And that's what makes Hayes such an exciting NHL prospect. His size will allow him to continue to bang bodies at the pro level, while his hands and vision round out his offensive dynamic. He has the ability to play that finesse style, which is way more effective when complementing his straight ahead style.
Let me paint you a picture: Hayes has the puck in an offensive situation. He tries a fancy move to create more space for himself or he holds onto a shot for an extra second to try and move the goalie. The defense catches up to him and either takes the puck or blocks the shot.
That scenario happened a lot when Hayes first graced the NHL ice. It still happens now, but it's starting to be less frequent.
Professional athletes are creatures of habit. They have to be. They have routines and superstitions they have to live with because they're generally doing the same thing over and over again every single day. It's tough to break out of old habits. In the NCAA, Hayes had those extra seconds to make a last move or move the keeper. Those seconds aren't there in the NHL, and it's something he's starting to learn.
The point with Hayes is he can learn it at the NHL level. I think he's gotten better as time has gone on even though his offensive numbers aren't there yet. And that doesn't even take into consideration the fact that he's playing a (somewhat) new position at center.
Mueller is what he is at this point in his career, and to be honest he didn't exactly open eyes while he was up, either. He didn't play very much, scored one big goal and was there mainly because he was a somewhat experienced center more than anything else. Hayes has a future, and potentially a really, really big one with the Rangers. He's getting better and better each game and with the return of Stepan he'll be able to play some easier minutes and get a little more time to grow.
Sometimes you can kill two birds with one stone in the NHL. Hayes can learn the game up here. He already is. And the quicker he figures it out, the better it is for the Rangers.