The New York Rangers have a multitude of decisions to make before the start of the 2018-19 season, and each one has a varying level of importance.
The individual Jeff Gorton chooses to replace Alain Vigneault as head coach is first on the list, and there are a number of candidates for the job. How the Rangers use their own first-round pick, which will be determined results of draft lottery, is second on the list. Third on the list is who stays and goes from the current roster, with the center position being of importance, along with the defense.
Center depth is an area the Rangers have looked to shore up since the day Mark Messier left for Vancouver in 1997, and no one has been able to fit the bill. The Rangers almost had Joe Sakic after designing a hard to match offer sheet, but the Colorado Avalanche ultimately found a way to keep him and the rest is history. There was 192 games and 158 points over three seasons from Eric Lindros.
Bobby Holik... Brad Richards spent 210 games with the team tallying 151 points before his contract was removed from the cap via an amnesty buyout.
Derek Stepan was the most recent Ranger to hold the role for a number of seasons, but he was jettisoned to Arizona with Antti Raanta in a package for Tony DeAngelo and a first-round pick. That pick was used to draft a center at No. 7 overall, Lias Andersson. They also drafted Filip Chytil at No. 21 overall. A year prior the team sold high on Derick Brassard and in exchange for Mika Zibanejad, who turned an injury-shortened first season on Broadway into a five-year extension. Zibanejad finished the 2017-18 season, his first at the team’s No. 1 center, with 27 goals; with three more he would have become the Rangers’ first center since Lindros to score 30 or more in a season.
That leaves Kevin Hayes, who I feel is the most important piece of all – one who more than deserves his next contract, and one that should be with the Rangers. You might be asking why a rebuilding team should be extending a player like Hayes, but there’s a method to my madness here. For starters, Hayes is coming off a very good season, the second best of his career from a 5v5 perspective.
Kevin Hayes 2014 to 2018 Breakdown
Hayes had his best season to date in terms of goal scoring and his second best season in terms of primary points, total points, primary points per 60, and total points per 60. He also improved his possession metrics and his on-ice goal stats.
It should be noted that according to Corsica, only 26.72% of his faceoffs started in the offensive zone vs. the 26.54% he took in the offensive zone the year prior, so his improvements weren’t by virtue or increased offensive usage. His other zone starts in 2017-18 included 35.97% in the defensive zone and the remaining 37.32% coming in the neutral zone.
With a new coach on the way the Rangers should see Hayes can do with a little more freedom, and it would be a shame for them to squander that opportunity.
Dominating at 5v5 isn’t something new for Hayes; since entering the league he’s been one of the best players in that regard. In the period of 2014 to 2018, he ranks 26th in primary points per 60, 32nd in points per 60, 37th in goals, and 46th in both total points and primary points.
What makes Hayes special is that in his career to date he’s got a great 5v5 primary point share. In 310 career games, Hayes has recorded 174 points. Of those 174 points, 124 have come 5v5 with 103 of those 124 being primary points, or 83.1% percent primary point share. That’s a pretty amazing number to start a career, it’s worth seeing see where that puts him among the top 50 players in that period.
2014 to 2018 5v5 Leaders by Primary Points Percentage
Of the top 50 players in primary 5v5 points from 2014 to 2018, Hayes had the 13th highest percentage of primary points. In other words, when Hayes was contributing offensively, he wasn’t padding totals with a lot of secondary assists. Some day there will be better tracking for assists, and secondary assists won’t have a stigma. By that I mean a brilliant breakout pass to start a play could end up being a secondary assist if the puck is passed at the last minute to set up a goal. You would think that first pass would be more valuable than the second pass, but there’s no automated way of tabulating that currently. Therefore more of an emphasis is placed on “primary points.” While more points are obviously better, it is good to see that he’s trending in the right direction.
James Neal is No. 1 on the list because of his 118 points, 104 were primary. Nikita Kucherov has 175 points and is 24th on the list because 138 of them were primary. The purpose of this list is to highlight that Hayes is contributing in a big way even though there are others with bigger totals. Ice time is something that also matters, because if you aren’t on the ice a lot you aren’t going to have as many opportunities.
If you’re interested in the remain 25 players you can check out the full 50 you can check out this table. By no means is this list being presented to say that Hayes is better than Kucherov or Evgeny Kuznetsov or Alex Ovechkin. It is simply providing context for what he’s done, and showing a body of work that has the potential to be repeated.
You may be asking why such a heavy focus on 5v5, and that’s because that type of play helps give a better read on a player. If two players have 60 points, and one gets a ton of the power play and the other doesn’t, I am going to be more impressed with the player who didn’t play special teams. 5v5 accounts for the majority of a player’s ice time, and ice time is very critical to scoring.
Throughout his career, Hayes has averaged 15:07 a game in all situations, which to me suggests that there’s more production to be had there. His 5v5 TOI per game is 12:55 which should increase next season. He’s also not had any major swings in PDO with his totals in chronological order being 102.20, 103.32, 102.21 and 101.91. He’s been pretty average in this regard, which is good; a higher PDO would indicate Hayes benefiting from luck, and therefore producing results that simply aren’t sustainable. For a great explainer on PDO, I recommend this piece from Arctic Ice Hockey.
Hayes to this point in his career hasn’t spent a ton of time on the power play; he’s skated 363:23 picking up 26 points, 17 of which being primary. That equates to 1:10 per game which is nothing. The 2017-18 season saw him log the third-fewest minutes on the PP of his career, as he skated just 85:13 in total with his team on the man-advantage.
With regular power play usage, Hayes could likely pick up an additional 10 to 15 points a season minimum, which would take him from a 45 to 50 point center to a 55 to 65 point center – and that’s without considering additional 5v5 production through more favorable usage. I think that’s a fair number because if Hayes can find a way to get it done at even strength, he’s bound to be able to take advantage with some extra time and space and offensive-minded linemates. You might be saying 10 to 15 points is a small increase, but you’d be surprised how a few extra points change’s someone’s perception of a player, and it is a shame that Hayes’ 5v5 game doesn’t get the love it deserves.
TL/DR: Hayes is producing in the areas he should, and there’s reason to belief deployment and usage can explain suppressed point totals to an extent.
Is His Value Higher Through Trade?
This is a question often posed when talking about Hayes, because many point out his age and proximity to unrestricted free agency and the fact that the Rangers already have Zibanejad and a gaggle of young centers in the system. In theory all the reasons he is valuable to the Rangers would entice a team to trade for him. Larry Brooks thinks he could be on the table in a potential trade for a top-pairing defender, and that’s a move worth considering.
However, while Hayes could certainly fetch a hefty haul, his breakout potential and the the Rangers’ lack of NHL depth at center make it hard to justify moving him. I also think the Rangers can ultimately address their defense in a number of steps. Step one who be this offseason by adding another capable NHL defender to complement Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, maybe Brendan Smith and the kids that should include Neal Pionk, John Gilmour and DeAngelo. Step two will see them replace Ryan McDonagh next summer in a class that will include some impressive defenders.
This is not to say that you don’t think about moving Hayes if a Dougie Hamilton or Jacob Trouba were available, but it could be a situation where they are robbing Peter to pay Paul.
If you subtract Hayes from the Rangers via trade, that would leave the Rangers with Andersson, Chytil, Holland, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ryan Spooner and Zibanejad as players who were on the roster in 2017-18 and can play center. Holland is likely going back to the AHL, Andersson, Chytil are rookies, so that leaves RFAs in Namestnikov and Spooner – and I think only one returns for the upcoming season. I also doubt that David Desharnais will be back, so scratch him off the list.
If you consider the fact that Namestnikov was better this year as a winger and Spooner primarily played wing in New York that depth gets even weaker. Brett Howden has improved his stock since being acquired in the Ryan McDonagh/J.T. Miller blockbuster, but is likely two years away. Other than that, are there any centers on the way who could fill the need the Rangers have?
The one wild card is the draft lottery, and if the Rangers hold their position they could potential nab Oliver Wahlstrom who would add some talent to the center pool. But he would then fall in the same boat as Chytil, and the team can’t count their chickens before they hatch. There’s also the John Tavares situation, but that would be a major coup which would completely change the nature of the rebuild.
McKenzie cont'd: "...they go check back in and see if there is anyway they can facilitate it. If John Tavares goes to free agency I don't doubt for a second the Rangers will be in it, cause at the end of the day, New York is New York, and the Rangers are the Rangers". #NYR— NHL/Prospects Watcher (@Prospects_Watch) April 11, 2018
The odds of that are low though, and shouldn’t be factored into this situation. And other than him there aren’t really any UFA centers of interest this summer.
With that said, of the list of centers, Zibanejad is the one sure thing in terms of a top six center, as he has shown the offensive ability and he is under contract. However, there is another side to consider because as talented as Zibanejad is at 25, he has already had five concussions.
Awful news for Zibanejad. Including his final year in Sweden, this is concussion no.4 or 5, I believe. https://t.co/8zBewuBQ3o— Murray Pam (@Pammerhockey) November 30, 2017
When Zibanejad did return he played a bit hesitant, and it took him a bit to get back up to speed. He admitted as much in an interview with the New York Post.
And this represents a sharp reversal in fortune for Zibanejad, who following a strong getaway, was a midseason shell of himself after returning in mid-December from a concussion that, the center told The Post, “was not just one or two for me.”
“I’ve had quite a few,” Zibanejad said before the Rangers’ 4-3 defeat to the Flyers on Thursday in which he scored his sixth goal in the last four games and ninth in 10 matches since the trade deadline. “When I came back, I was very aware of that and very cautious with the way I played. It’s not how you want it to be, but at the same time you don’t have the confidence to play your game and get into battles like you normally would.
“When you have a concussion, it takes over your whole life, not just hockey.”
Concussions are fickle, and there’s no telling what would happen if Zibanejad were to suffer another one.
No disrespect to Chytil or Andersson, but we need to see more of them before we gift either a top-six role. Chytil’s exemplary play with the Wolf Pack is encouraging, but patience will be required.
Spooner theoretically could be moved back to center and is a 50-point guy on paper, but it makes more sense to keep him on the wing, an area the Rangers also have to figure out, and keep Hayes in the middle.
I think Ryan Spooner is worth betting on for next season on the wing. pic.twitter.com/UFOf3GqGzc— Tom Urtz Jr. (@TomUrtzJr) April 9, 2018
From a depth perspective I doubt anyone would complain about having a trio of Chytil, Hayes and Zibanejad. At the height of their powers, it could be a fearsome group that becomes the backbone the Rangers use to win a championship. It would create an environment for Chytil to develop at his own pace, and would provide insurance in the event Zibanejad gets injured. It also buys some time for Andersson, Howden and any other centers the team acquires in the next few years.
Although the Rangers are “rebuilding,” the team has every intention of making the playoffs next season. There is no interest in missing the playoffs for consecutive seasons in order to accumulate a bevy of prized first-round picks within the top 10 slots. They aren’t going to do what the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks did.
Gorton reinforced what Henrik Lundqvist said, and the direction seems to be clear.
Via Larry Brooks of the New York Post
I believe what he’s saying is true. I don’t think you should be playing in the NHL if it’s not about winning. We’re going to try and win every game. Henrik is the ultimate competitor and I’m sure he’s going to approach this offseason like he’s approached no offseason in the past. He’s going to come back, prove to everyone we can turn around this thing quickly and that he can be the guy to be the backbone for that. I hope everybody in our room understands that we should be about winning.
What Could Kevin Hayes Become?
If the Rangers truly want to win next season, Kevin Hayes can play a big role in that. He’s spent four seasons in New York, and been asked to do a lot of things – he’s been asked to play center, been thrown to the wing, and during the last two years he’s been asked to be a shutdown center.
Many times he’s been called Baby Joe Thornton, because there are elements of Jumbo’s game that Hayes emulates, but there’s another player I have in mind.
In many ways I think of Blake Wheeler when I look at Hayes even though he’s a right winger. Hayes himself has played all three positions, but the Rangers see him as center more so than a right wing. The comparison starts with background, build and how they broke into the league. Both were good college players who didn’t sign with the team that drafted them.
Wheeler was draft 5th overall by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2004 and finished the year as the 17th overall North American skater at the time by the Central Scouting Bureau. He went on to sign with the Boston Bruins.
Both stand 6’5” with Wheeler at 225 pounds and Hayes now down to 217 pounds after coming into the league at a heavier weight around 235 pounds.
Once both made it to the NHL level, they started out slowly earning their ice time and had modest point totals. Wheeler had his breakout in his fourth season, as he tallied 64 points with the Winnipeg Jets while skating 19:05 a game primarily with Bryan Little and a rotating opposite winger of Andrew Ladd and Evander Kane. The year prior he scored 44 points between the Boston Bruins and Atlanta Thrashers while averaging 16:15 a night.
It should be noted that during Wheeler’s first four seasons, he tallied 141 points 5v5, 109 of which were slightly better than Hayes. Who’s to say that with similar TOI and some consistent usage that Hayes isn’t capable of the same? Hayes’ usage was interesting, and here’s the most popular combos from the 2017-18 campaign.
Kevin Hayes’ Most Popular Linemates
Wheeler was one of the best players in the NHL this season finishing ninth in scoring with 91 points. The 31-year-old forward had a career year and prior to that Wheeler’s point totals were 74, 78, 61, 69 and 41 in 48 games played during the lockout year. Do I see Hayes having a season with 91 points? Not at this point, but I don’t think 70+ points in a career year is out of the realm of possibility.
He’s shown the ability to be dominant in the past, and I think a new coach takes him to a whole new level.
I feel the same about Hayes’ contract, even a little more confident about my proposal now than when I wrote about him at the beginning of March. Here’s what I said then:
New York Rangers sign Kevin Hayes to five-year deal with an AAV of $5.5 million
Matt Cane’s model predicts that Hayes on a five-year deal is worth $4.82 million. I feel that Hayes’ actual contract ends up being somewhere between my figure and his. Maybe something like $5.25 million with some summer bonuses as a form of lockout protection. So the logical question you probably have is, why do I think Hayes is worth an AAV of $5.5 million? This deal would be make Hayes the Rangers’ highest paid forward, but it accounts for cap inflation.
When Zibanejad signed his deal which carries an AAV of $5.35 million, it represented 7.13 percent of the salary cap. He also had a stat line of 188 points in 337 games for a 0.56 points per game average. Hayes currently has 161 points in 292 games for a 0.55 points per game average. I referenced some other contract comparables in my initial story which you can check out if you’d like.
The major difference here is Hayes is a year older with less experience, so the Rangers were in a situation where they were buying UFA years. Hayes’ hypothetical $5.5 million salary would represent 7.05 percent of a $78 million cap, or 6.87 percent of an $80 million cap. I am a believer that percent of cap space occupied is more important of a metric than the actual hit when comparing two players salaries year to year.
There is also an element of accounting for the cap rising, because there needs to be an incentive for the player to lock in for a number of years, because it prevents them from maximizing their career earnings. In this case that’s why I feel the $5.5 million is a fair sell for all involved parties.
The figure isn’t unreasonable, and it would cover his age 26, 27, 28, 29 and age 30 season. Hayes would turn 31 in May of 2023. It is possible the Rangers could get him for less, but this wouldn’t really be an overpay. This contract would cover the Rangers’ rebuild, and would allow them to retain Hayes at the end of the deal as a veteran.
The only difference is that Hayes is up to 174 points in 310 games for a 0.56 points per game average; other than that, everything still lines up. Brooks suggested that Hayes’ potential contract could be a little lower with a range of $4.5 to $5.25 million on a four to five-year deal. I certainly can see $5.25 million and wouldn’t complain about $4.5 million, but just don’t see Hayes taking a discount on a deal that eats up three or four UFA years.
I think it is clear that Hayes stands in a class by himself in terms of Ranger free agents. Brady Skjei to an extent will require special treatment, although a tough sophomore season makes things a little more interesting. If I were to sum things up in a few sentences on Hayes, it is this:
The Rangers always seem to find themselves looking for a player like Hayes; one with size and skill who is young and can grow into an impact player. It is the classic, “the grass is always greener on the other side.” The Rangers have the player they have been looking for, they just need to use him to his strengths and let him play instead of pigeonholing him into what the team needs. I don’t think it is outrageous to say Hayes is mighty close to becoming an impact player, and with the Rangers building for the future he’s exactly what they need.