"One who makes no mistakes makes nothing," Italian author Giacomo Casanova once said.
A common hockey cliché in tight games that analysts often lean on is that the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win. Or, even more intense and burdening, that one mistake will decide the game. At face value, these sentiments are often very true. What is problematic, though, is the inference from this that an individual or team should game-plan specifically to avoid mistakes. A tennis player could avoid faulting on his serve by lobbing the ball across the net. A quarterback could avoid a costly, glaring interception by only throwing screen passes and handing the ball off. But in minimizing the immediate risk, those players are effectively eliminating their abilities to make a major positive play. The tennis player has no chance at hitting any aces or having command of the rally. The quarterback has eliminated almost any chance of gaining meaningful yardage. The collective result of refusing to take any chances will be far more dooming than any isolated mistake.
It's the same for hockey. In order to make a noteworthy play, a player and team have to accept some risk. Unfortunately, this is a concept that many coaches aren't fully comfortable with. A coach isn't going to remember the nine dump-ins from the neutral zone that the other team easily retrieved, but he will be haunted by the one stretch pass attempt that was picked off in the neutral zone and let to an odd-man rush. The last two Rangers games have shown quite clearly that the collective effect of not taking many risks is two effortless victories for rookie goaltender Matt Murray.
Quite simply, the Rangers aren't going to earn any safe victories against the Penguins, They need to take a direct approach and uppercut them in the face (no not literally, Tanner). The one player who has been inadequately utilized and can bring this element is Kevin Hayes. It hasn't been a perfect season by any means for Hayes. There have certainly been some awful games. But that makes him just like most sophomore NHLers. Somehow, it's become the opinion of many, including perhaps the coaching staff, that Hayes has outright failed to perform this season.
The evidence indicates this is not true. My company, Clear Sight Analytics, tracked every shot the Rangers took this season and classified them by quality. In doing so, we also tracked the players whose pass directly led to those shots. Here is how Ranger forwards ranked this season in setting up high-percentage shots.
Hayes, with 11 passes that set up high-percentage shots, tied with Derick Brassard for third among Rangers forwards. Here are the combined high- and mid-percentage shot numbers.
Again, similar result. Hayes is fourth on the team in setting up quality shots. Of course, these are raw numbers. Account for the fact that Hayes has mostly played bottom-six minutes this season and it's clear that very few players on this team can create offense for others like Hayes has this season; warts and all.
Hayes is not blameless for this rocky season, but his struggles have been massively overstated and he hasn't exactly been in a position to succeed. Constantly changing linemates and limited minutes make it very hard for a young player to get his bearings and develop any consistency. Even worse are the players he's been set up with. His most frequent linemates this season have been Oscar Lindberg, Viktor Stalberg, J.T. Miller, and Jesper Fast. Miller aside, those are three solid players but not ones who particularly possess a significant amount of offensive punch. He's played more minutes alongside Tanner Glass than he has Derick Brassard. Putting one of the team's top passers with players who aren't scorers isn't maximizing Hayes' talent.
The narrative on Hayes this season has been that he's lazy. Maybe that's true. Maybe not. It's really besides the point. Society likes to romanticize work ethic and attitude and wants to believe that it always overcomes talent. Unfortunately, this often is not the case. If Kevin Hayes is being lazy, then a lazy Kevin Hayes is one of the team's best playmakers. The time for making statements and testing players was in the winter, when there wasn't so much at stake. If the coaching staff is still unhappy with Hayes' effort level or attitude, then by all means have a pointed discussion with him after the season ends. Right now, the Rangers need to put their best 12 forwards on the ice. Jesper Fast is a hard worker and very dependable. However, hard work and dependability aren't creating offense. Tanner Glass might be doing his job. His job isn't helping the Rangers win hockey games. Kevin Hayes maybe isn't the most reliable player shift-for-shift, but he has the ability to set up the Rangers' scorers with quality shooting opportunities, and they can't take that for granted with how this series has gone.
One more game of complacent offense will end the season and, perhaps, this team's Stanley Cup window. It's time to start serving for power. It's time to start throwing for first down. The Rangers aren't making many glaring mistakes with their chip-and-chase strategy, but as a result of this hesitant offense they're making nothing altogether. It's time to let Kevin Hayes make something.