Kevin Hayes was a revelation last season for the New York Rangers. The 23 year old secured a spot centering the third line and provided the Rangers with consistent depth scoring, registering 17 goals and 45 points in 79 games. Heading into the 2015-16 season, hopes were high for Hayes to continue his excellent play as a sophomore player in New York. However, in an unexpected move by head coach Alain Vigneault, Hayes was given a look primarily on the wing alongside Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider while the bottom six featured a revolving cast at the onset of the season.
The switch to the wing seemed to be paying dividends with Hayes registering a point in each of the Rangers first three games. By the way, in case you forgot his goal it was this beauty:
Oh Bobrovsky, if you only knew what lay ahead of you.
The Rangers lost their next two games to Winnipeg and Montreal, and Hayes was left off the scoresheet as the team was only able to score one goal in those 120 minutes. Hayes went back to playing center on the third line at this point with Vigneault shifting the lines and roster around quite a bit. The scoreless streak continued in the next two games for Hayes following the move.
Then it all seemed to click. Hayes has registered at least a point in six of the past eight games, tallying three goals and four assists in total during that span. The Massachusetts native has played a pivotal role in the Rangers' stellar 8-0-2 record in the past ten games. The Garden Faithful have been treated to Hayes' extraordinary displays of patience and vision with the puck recently that endeared him to Blueshirts fans in his rookie year. This quality in his game, which is remarkably mature and composed for such a young player, is what contributes to the oft-quoted Blueshirt Banter fact that Kevin Hayes was co-leader in the NHL in primary assists last season.
Through 15 games this season, Hayes has four goals and six assists while averaging just under 14 minutes on the ice per game. His ten points place him in a tie for third on the team, one point behind Oscar Lindberg and two behind Mats Zuccarello. Hayes has been able to live up to the lofty expectations through the early season, an impressive feat for a player entering their sophomore season. With Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard centering the top six, having a dynamic center like Hayes in favorable matchups is crucial to prolonged team success when inevitable injuries and cold streaks occur over the course of the arduous season.
A possibly under-appreciated or unnoticed aspect of Kevin Hayes is his ability to stay out of the penalty box. Last season, Hayes accrued only 22 PIMs. This year he has continued the trend with only 4 PIMs, putting him firmly on pace to match his total from last season. This proclivity for playing clean, intelligent hockey does not garner the attention that a beautiful pass or wicked shot might, but being on the ice when your team needs you and avoiding putting your team on the penalty kill is an important part of the game.
Overall, Hayes has built upon his successful rookie campaign with a solid start to the 2015-16 season. His maturity manifests itself in his composure under pressure, allowing him to make the right play under duress. Rangers fans should recognize how special it is to have acquired a bona fide center with top-six potential without having to surrender draft picks or prospects. Hayes is everything you want from a third line center in the modern NHL, and all signs point to him only getting better.