Note: Only the 2014-15 regular season was considered for the grading process. Enjoy!
Kevin Hayes' rookie season with the Blueshirts came with a lot of high expectations. The Rangers were fortunate enough to sign the free agent and former first round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks and in so doing immediately added a top prospect to their roster. Hayes' exemplary play at Boston College had him on the radar on the vast majority of NHL clubs who were all hungry to add the young, big center to their club. Thanks to a bonus-laden two-year entry-level deal Hayes signed with the Rangers and the early returns on the Boston-born center were outstanding.
"I think it's huge for our team. He's been a big part of our success this year... I didn't really know about him before the season. He came here and opened a lot of eyes." -Derick Brassard on Hayes in late April
Hayes' 45 points were the 5th most by any rookie last season. Only Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Filip Forsberg, and Hayes' former linemate at BC Johnny Gaudreau had more productive debuts in the NHL. Each of those players had more ice time and a lot more time on the man advantage than Kevin Hayes did, although it is worth pointing out that Hayes likely benefited from not having to battle the opposition's best defensemen every night like Forsberg and Gaudreau did.
The two stats that you can't not talk about in regards to Kevin Hayes' season are how amazing his primary assist numbers were and how awful he was on the faceoff dot. First, let's take a look at how great he was at a set-up man. The numbers are sure to make any Rangers' fan giddy about the depth that the club has down the middle for the foreseeable future. Hayes, who turned 23 in May, had just as many points in his rookie season as Derek Stepan did back in 2010-11.
The league leaders in primary assists last season were Joe Thornton, Tyler Seguin, and Kevin Hayes. All three of the aforementioned centers picked up 21 primary helpers in 2014-15. That means that only one of Hayes' assists was a secondary assist, so it is safe to say that Hayes earned each and every one of his 45 points the hard way. As I stated earlier, Hayes didn't benefit from a lot of power play ice time (just 48:08 total on the season, Forsberg led all rookies with 232:15), so just 5 of his points came on the man advantage. Given his role on the third line it shouldn't come as a surprise that Hayes' 1.36 FirstA/60 rate at even strength was the very best in the league among players who played more than 20 games last season, Hayes also finished 21st in A/60 with 1.43 at evens. I'm not sure what most of us were expecting late last August when the Rangers signed Hayes, but a 45 point rookie season with 21 primary assists seems like a grand slam of a free agent signing in retrospect, doesn't it?
You don't have to look at the metrics to understand just how great of a set-up man Hayes is. His size, strength, and patience with the puck proves to make a lethal combination that frequently results in creating quality scoring chances for his teammates. Just take a look at this gorgeous play late in September where Hayes sets up Jesper Fast for a big goal over the Flyers.
A thing of beauty.
As wonderful as Hayes was with the puck he wasn't very good at winning it when it was dropped from the hand of an official. Hayes' 36.3 FO% was the worst on the Rangers among centers which put him at the 100 spot among centers in the league. His shortcomings at faceoffs was a catalyst for a few experimental games on the wing in the top six for the Blueshirts but it soon became clear that despite his trouble winning draws he belonged at center. You can teach and improve upon faceoff ability, one needs only to look at Sidney Crosby's improvement from his rookie season on the dot. What you can't teach is the patience and touch that Hayes has with the puck in the offensive zone.
Hayes' 2014-15 season was, all things told, exceptionally good. Despite having the puck on his stick as much as he did Hayes still had 5 more takeaways than giveaways as a rookie center in the NHL. Sure, he didn't take the body very often despite his immense 6'5" frame, but we can't allow ourselves to focus on his lack of physicality and struggles with faceoffs at the expense of overlooking his offensive production and solid two-way play. We have to remember that Hayes accomplished all of this as a rookie in the NHL in a season that is twice as long and unspeakably more difficult.
Is there room for improvement for Hayes in his sophomore season? Sure there is, but when you consider what he accomplished and gave to the team in his rookie season you can't really have asked much more of the kid, even with all of the lofty expectations surrounding him. The Rangers needed Hayes to be an exceptional young player last season and that is just what he was. Despite juggled linemates, rarely seeing the ice on the man advantage, and having to acclimate to the NHL game, Hayes had a spectacular rookie campaign which is why, in my opinion, he is an easy "A".
As always, thanks for reading. Let's go Rangers. What grade would you give Kevin Hayes?