Three players who have skated with the Rangers this year have scored 20 goals. At the top of the 2017-18 season most of us would have expected (or maybe “hoped” is the better word) that Rick Nash, Chris Kreider, and Mika Zibanejad would be those three. But as it turns out only one of those players has reached the 20 goal mark: Zibanejad. Michael Grabner scored 25 goals for the Blueshirts before he was dealt across the Hudson. The Rangers other 20 goal scorer? Kevin Hayes.
In Hayes’s rookie year the stat that enchanted countless Rangers fans was his 21 primary assists during 5-on-5 hockey. Back then, the 6-foot-5 center appeared to have come from a mold similar to the one that had produced Joe Thornton — a towering pass-first center with tremendous vision. But Hayes has evolved since his first year; there’s a lot more to his game than his vision and knack for setting up his teammates.
The most interesting adaptation to Hayes’ game this year has been his play away from the puck, but his play with the puck on his stick is also quite interesting; he’s become something of a shooter. Just to be clear we’re not talking about an Alex Ovechkin or Brent Burns level shooter, but Hayes is definitely taking more shots this season. His 5-on-5 iCF (individual shot attempts) in 67 games this year is nearly level with his 5-on-5 iCF last season in 76 games.
In the New Year, Hayes is averaging 2.65 shots/game (all strengths); in the first three months of the season the big center was averaging 2.08 shots/game. That may not look like a dramatic jump on paper, but a rate of 2.65 shots/game translates to 217 shots in an 82 game season. To put that into context, Hayes put 143 shots on net last season.
With Nash, Grabner, and J.T. Miller all gone, the Rangers have needed players to step into bigger roles; Hayes is one of them. In the first 56 games of the season (prior to the trade deadline), Hayes saw just 0:56 PP TOI/GP and 17:00 TOI/GP. In the last 10 games the fourth-year center is playing 18:45 TOI/GP and 1:28 PP TOI/GP. The vacancies in the Rangers’ lineup post-deadline didn’t just created an opportunity for Hayes to step into a bigger role, but into a more offensive role.
The only Blueshirt to score more goals in the New Year than Hayes is Mika Zibanejad and eight of his 14 goals in 2018 have come on the power play. Hayes has scored six goals in the last 10 games and none of them were scored on the man advantage; it turns out, he’s done most of his damage at even strength. Hayes has now scored as many 5-on-5 goals this season for the Rangers as Grabner did, and as many 5-on-5 goals as Zibanejad and Kreider have combined (16).
So, is he just getting lucky? Hayes’ 5-on-5 shooting percentage this year is 13.01 percent, which is up from his 11.93 percent last year. When compared to the other NHL skaters who have scored at least 16 goals during 5-on-5 play this year, Hayes’ shooting percentage is unremarkable. There are 28 players who have scored at least 16 goals during 5-on-5 hockey with higher shooting percentages than Hayes. Although it is worth mentioning that his 5-on-5 shot attempts are clearly on the lower end of the scale.
Coming into this season Hayes had two consecutive seasons of 21 primary points during 5-on-5 hockey. Thanks in large part to his finishing ability this year, he leads the Rangers with 25 primary points during 5-on-5 play in 67 games. His closest competition is Mats Zuccarello, who has 22 primary points during 5-on-5 hockey. Despite Hayes’ tough minutes, he’s found a way to produce for the Rangers all season long.
So, what do all of these numbers tell us? For one thing we can no longer really consider Hayes a one-trick pony in the offensive zone. He may still be a pass-first center, but Hayes has clearly become more confident and comfortable shooting the puck. He’s shooting more than ever and scoring more than ever.
Needless to say Hayes’ goal-scoring is going to factor into his contract negotiations this summer. Even with the additions of Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestnikov the Rangers need Hayes in a big, bad way moving forward. Since the deadline Hayes has found a way to put his value to the team in bold font. There’s no ignoring how vital he is to the future of the franchise.
Data courtesy naturalstatrick.com, Corsica.hockey, NHL.com