It takes two to tango. Remember that as we dive into this water, because it’s deep and murky and there’s way more questions than answers here.
Three days ago Larry Brooks penned an article foreshadowing Kevin Hayes and the Rangers focusing on a one-year deal. That was something of a shock, as Hayes — only 26 — was expected to be a long term option for this team moving forward. He’s coming off a 25-goal year where he played under the oppressive “defensive center” role he wasn’t suited for, and is one of the best primary point scorers in the NHL. (Below are the NHL leaders by primary point percentage from 2014-2018.)
He’s big, tough, and skilled. He’s the type of guy the Rangers covet, and a seemingly perfect compliment to a David Quinn system. For all the talk about how Quinn is going to help Jimmy Vesey, there was little talk about how his far more skilled collegiate counterpart would be impacted by Quinn.
Which was always strange. We knew that the Rangers were going to have a decision to make at center, something we’ve discussed here many times. It’s been on podcasts, Twitter polls, and whatever else you can think of. The logic seemed simple enough: with Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, and Brett Howden on their way up through the center ranks, it didn’t make sense to have both Mika Zibanejad and Hayes on the team long term. We knew a decision was coming, what we didn’t know was how quickly the Rangers were going to make it.
Hayes being around for a one-year deal almost certainly ensures he’s going to be moved by the trade deadline. This isn’t a “show me” contract, this isn’t a “let me show you what I can do now that you have a coach who can utilize me properly” contract; even though the latter will likely end up being true. This is the Rangers and Hayes coming to an agreement that the best course of action is for the two parties to buy a year of time to make a decision. Hayes has full control over where he goes next, and the Rangers have a chance to get something of value back for him.
Which brings us to the contract itself. In the Brooks’ article there was speculation Hayes wanted “between $5.5 million and $6 million per for five or six years.” With the money being thrown around in the NHL, and Hayes’ value to the team, that would have been an easy extension for me to sign as Jeff Gorton. Lock up Hayes until he’s 31, keep the pressure of Chytil and Andersson to step in right away, and give yourself time to make a decision.
Now, here’s the “two to tango” part.
Hayes — and more importantly, his agent — aren’t robots on an NHL19 RFA screen. They’re humans who are aware the Rangers suddenly have a glut of centers and that one of Hayes/Zibanejad would need to be moved to make room for the future. If Hayes was asking for the above, I can’t imagine Gorton wouldn’t have been interested in keeping him around at $5.5. What I bet is the sticking point: clauses. Hayes probably wanted a no trade clause of some form, and Gorton probably didn’t want to commit to that.
It makes no sense, relationship wise, to sign Hayes to a long-term deal and move him right away. It breaks down trust with other agents, and other players, who would demand clauses to their contracts and point to Hayes as an example. I know some of you will think it’s not a big deal, but bad business is bad business, and it’s the right move to avoid that trail.
So where did that leave Gorton? He had two options: Re-up Hayes for a five-year deal and look to move him in year two or three (if you could get Hayes to sign without a clause), or sign him to a one-year deal and know you’re moving him at the deadline.
It hurts to pick the second option, but if it’s all that was on the table (again, two to tango) then it’s all that was on the table. As a UFA this summer, Hayes leaves the Rangers in a tough spot. They can try to negotiate a sign-and-trade as of January 1st (the earliest Hayes can be extended) which would increase the return for him — but the Rangers would lose leverage since Hayes would need to approve the team he’s signing the extension with. The other option is simply trading him at the trade deadline as a rental/you get three months of exclusive negotiation rights with him. (Tom has a great write up on this — ironically written hours before he signed the one year extension.)
It is worth noting the AAV on Hayes’ deal is high — especially for a one-year deal. If Gorton really wanted to put the screws to Hayes and throw him out the door, he could have let the group go to arbitration and then push the middle-ground agreement down his throat. He didn’t, and played ball in good faith. There’s something to be said for that, because perhaps Hayes agreed to be amicable for future trade negotiations in return for being paid more up front.
One thing we do know: This is going to hang over the team the entire year. There’s about a 10% chance Hayes finishes the year on Broadway, and if it does it will come from a remarkably unlikely Stanley Cup run or him exploding onto the scene so hard Gorton is forced to pay through the nose to lock him up long term and then turn toward moving Zibanejad.
I will say, Hayes is my biggest expected riser under Quinn, simply because I think he’s going to churn out offense when he’s not worried about coming back into his own end. That should increase his value, but it will suck to lose Hayes.
Winning the Hayes’ sweepstakes felt like a real thrill. He was a fantastic Ranger, and still is. I’m sad to see him go out this way, but sometimes those are the breaks. Here’s to him killing it this year.