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The Rangers Can’t Keep Mika Zibanejad And Kevin Hayes

Vegas Golden Knights v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Of all the questions surrounding the New York Rangersand there are many — one seems to keep popping up over and over again.

Should the Rangers re-sign Kevin Hayes instead of trading him?

In almost any other year the answer to this question would be a resounding yes. He’s only 26, they would be be signing him through his prime, and even on the longest of contracts they’re only looking at two or three years of “regret” if his play drops off considerably. He’s a fantastic offensive driver at 5v5, one of the better primary point producers in the NHL, and he plays center.

For a Rangers team that’s re-building, though? Hayes just doesn’t make sense, big picture or small. You can make the argument, as some have, that moving win-now pieces currently on the roster doesn’t fit with the idea of signing a win-now piece in Artemi Panarin — but I don’t see those two ideas unable to exist in the same space. Panarin is one of the league’s few superstars, has just four years of NHL wear and tear (the NHL is far more physical than the more spacious KHL), and while he’s a year older than Hayes is, his underlying metrics, along with his scoring metrics, are eye-popping. Even without Hayes he would change the dynamic of the organization, and with the influx of talent (more to come on that), it would allow the team to push forward toward contention.

Larry Brooks has been extensively covering the Hayes/Rangers situation, including revealing that while the consensus is Hayes will be gone by the February 25th trade deadline, the two sides haven’t walked back on a potential extension. In his most recent article on the subject Brooks said the below about the timeline:

Still, let’s be serious. Gorton is going to shop Hayes aggressively in the interim in order to determine the rental value of No. 13, who will rejoin the lineup for Tuesday’s re-opener against the Flyers at the Garden after having missed nine games leading into the bye/All-Star break with a middle-body issue. It is possible the market for Hayes may not crystalize until the fates of prospective available forwards Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, Artemi Panarin, Brayden Schenn and perhaps Vladimir Tarasenko are established.

So it may come down to a final 48-72 hours for Gorton, who needs more than the standard late first-rounder-plus to justify moving the Bostonian who has been his team’s best player the past two seasons and who has improved dramatically three years running under both Alain Vigneault and David Quinn.

Is it possible that Gorton doesn’t find a deal he likes on the trade market this month? Maybe, although I maintain buyers will always buy if they see a fit — and it’s hard to imagine Hayes not being a fit for almost all of them. But that’s not what this is about, this is about whether or not Hayes can be kept.

He can’t. At least not with Zibanejad in the fold.

I wrote about why it is Hayes, not Zibanejad, who should be moved this deadline back in December, citing the following:

Right now Hayes is making $5.175-million, a total far lower than what he’s going to get on the open market. Unless Hayes has a very specific destination in mind, I can’t imagine he would walk away from the July free agency period (where he would be a crown jewel) with less than $6.5-million per year on a long-term contract.

Zibanejad is in the second year of a five-year extension worth $5.35-million per year. Based on his current production, Zibanejad’s contract is a damn fine one at worst, and an outright steal at best. On pace for a 71-point season, Zibanejad continues to be a driving force of the team’s offense and is having a solid year (comparable to the team average) in terms of underlying metrics.

(By the way: the above pace-out for Zibanejad was written on Dec 15, and as of this writing his pace is up to a 75-point season if he plays in 82 games. Zibanejad’s contract is firmly in the “steal” category, and if he even approaches the 70-point mark it’s a laughable one.)

The bigger point here is while it’s not a monetary reason, it’s is a space issue. With just Brady Skjei and Zibanejad signed beyond 2020 as of this writing, the Rangers would need to make some extraordinarily bad decisions to have cap space issues in the next two years.

The space issue is physical space. There’s only so many positions on a hockey team, and on a game level, there’s only so much ice time to dish out.

Lias Andersson — the Rangers’ 7th overall pick in 2017 — is plying his trade in Hartford, after a short 21-game stay in the NHL that burned off the first year of his ELC. In those 21 games Andersson put up four points, saw a mostly rag-tag group of linemates, and spent a majority of his time on the fourth line before getting sent back down to Hartford. Even if you remove Andersson, Brett Howden and Filip Chytil don’t have enough room to keep both of them at their position, and Boo Nieves is giving plenty of reason for why he should probably be among those discussed for the 4C role next year. Chytil is getting a fair amount of time at wing, which is helping alleviate some of that pressure, but isn’t exactly the best thing for his long-term center development — although those minutes on the wing are significantly better than him not getting the ice time and playing with Cody Mcleod on the fourth line.

Add Hayes back into the mix and suddenly you only have one top-nine center role available for four young centers — three of which are critical assets in the rebuild. If the Rangers do sign Hayes and keep Zibanejad then it’s a signal from the organization they don’t have top-six aspirations for at least two of the three at center — which is fine, I guess, but we’re not there yet.

Chytil has the highest ceiling of all four of them, and has rightfully seen a permanent role with the team this year. Shocking people out of the gate, Howden has seen a pretty drastic decline in play the past month or so — which is fine. Nieves has proven that he can hang with a 4C role if needed (maybe even more), and you hope Andersson’s struggles have as much to do with himself as the way he was used. The team will have decisions to make one way or another, even without Hayes, so keeping him around complicates things even further.

If the team is planning on keeping Chris Kreider, there is plenty of veteran leadership to go around without Panarin, let alone with him. Assuming Vitali Kravtsov is coming around next year as well, plus the normal growth from guys like Howden and Chytil who have spent a full year in the NHL, the Rangers would be pushing toward a better team next year than this year. Add in Panarin and it’s really just the defense that would need an overhaul, and Gorton might prioritize the position with the returns on Vlad Namestnikov, Hayes, and Mats Zuccarello.

A lot of questions will need to be answered in the coming days, but this one feels easy enough to answer right now. No, the Rangers can’t keep Hayes and Zibanejad, at least not without sacrificing one of their prospects to do so.