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The Kevin Hayes’ Plot Thickens

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New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Make this two deadlines in a row where the Ottawa Senators’ dysfunction has likely caused Jeff Gorton to lose sleep.

Last year it was Erik Karlsson being on the market at the same time as Ryan McDonagh, with teams vying for both player’s services, and putting McDonagh on the back burner as they tried to negotiate with Ottawa for the generational defenseman. You all know how that played out, with Gorton parlaying JT Miller with McDonagh in the blockbuster trade that doesn’t have the best early returns on investment to this point. This year is similar, if not doubled down, with Mark Stone filling is as the elite winger who might be blockading teams from narrowing down on Mats Zuccarello, and Matt Ducene acting as the roadblock for Kevin Hayes.

Forget Zuccarello, who has been on a ridiculous tear of late and will likely have a market for him despite Stone and Artemi Panarin potentially clogging the pipeline. Zuccarello is too formfitting to not grab someone’s attention, and even if he doesn’t the prospect of him sticking around long term isn’t as problematic as Hayes.

So let’s get to that ...

Last year Hayes signed a one-year bridge deal that will take him to UFA status this summer. The shorter term was likely demanded by Gorton’s refusal to give the 26-year-old trade protection he rightfully wanted, and gave Hayes a chance to buy himself a bigger payday while Gorton got time to facilitate a trade. With Filip Chytil, Brett Howden, and Lias Andersson in the wings as centers the organization were high on, having Mika Zibanejad and Hayes locked up long term didn’t seem like it made a ton of sense with all the pressure behind them. Getting a big return for Hayes to open up space, and continue the rebuild worked on paper, despite the idea of having to hold your nose to move someone with Hayes’ ability. I understand the arguments behind keeping talent one way or another, but the Rangers aren’t going to be that good next year (or maybe the year after), so why buy the prime of a guy who isn’t going to be in his prime when you need to win? The idea of trading him made sense.

In November there were rumblings the organization was getting a lot of attention for Hayes from a few suitors, Winnipeg being named directly. Here’s where things get muddy, so bear with my speculation here: If there was a deal on the table Gorton felt was acceptable, but he pushed talks off hoping to spark a bidding war, then he backed himself into a corner.

Here’s what isn’t speculation: Whatever market there was for Hayes earlier in the year seems to have been drastically altered the past month or so, whether by Ottawa’s nonsense or not doesn’t really matter. During a QA on Thursday Bob McKenzie had the below to say:

I maintain that these guys don’t say things unless there’s at least some truth to them, especially the guys who are known traders of information like McKenzie. If he’s “speculating” the return for Hayes could be soft, then the market is likely soft, if for now. Can that change? Of course it can! If Duchene re-ups in Ottawa, or gets moved tonight say, there are going to be more than a few teams who just lost out on their center target and will have to come to the Rangers to try and get their own weapon for this year’s arms race. But with a fair amount of teams treading water in a playoff spot — and thus not being full out buyers — it softens what could be there for Hayes.

What becomes the plan if the best deal for Hayes is a 2nd and B prospect, or worse? Hayes sitting on the roster a second after the trade deadline ends creates its own set of problems, mainly that Hayes suddenly has all the leverage in contract negotiations — of which there have been none, per the reporting of Larry Brooks — and can demand Gorton back up the truck lest lose him for nothing in free agency.

For a rebuilding team, that’s a catastrophic disaster that doesn’t have a right answer if Gorton is forced into making a decision. Do you forgo a poor return and force yourself to give Hayes a seven-year deal for $50-million because you’re picking 56th instead of 28th? Do you keep him and hope he negotiates in good faith despite the organization not even making an attempt to keep him for months?

See what I’m getting at?

If there was even a glimmer of hope the organization might keep him this would feel different, but knowing the two sides aren’t even talking doesn’t bode well for future negotiations if they’re required. The trade deadline is 10 days away, Gorton crawling back now wouldn’t exactly sell the needed leverage to keep Hayes’ asks in check. There might have been a deal to be made earlier in the year, after his hot start, but that opportunity is dead and buried, and what’s worse is everyone seems to know it, too. It’s not like Hayes hasn’t been thinking of life beyond the Rangers the past few weeks. It would be shocking if he wasn’t.

The market can shift, and things likely will once deals start getting cut. As much as the Jake Muzzin deal felt like a domino, it was for a defenseman and didn’t make any room among forwards who are on the market. A Zuccarello trade could get things started if other general managers think there’s going to be a feeding frenzy, but the right deal would need to be there for that to make sense. Remember, general managers often react, rather than be proactive.

It would be shocking if Hayes was still around post-deadline, it still needs to be said. Even if the market is soft there should be something for him out there, although that opens up a whole different can of worms. I can’t see a world where he’s kept and allowed to walk for nothing — and again, if Gorton intended to keep him they’d have spoken by now. I also want no part of whatever negotiation is born from Hayes knowing Gorton’s only options are keeping him or losing him for nothing. Based on the way things have been handled between the two sides to this point, it doesn’t seem like there’s a resolution for Hayes to stick around.

It’s also possible there’s talks out there that we simply don’t know about. The Rangers are very good at keeping information close to the vest, but that secrecy normally dissipates once other teams get involved. Things are leaked to the national guys from other team’s valves, and the information makes it into the public space that way. There’s been little of that, and if Bob’s tweet can be read into, what information he is getting isn’t positive when it comes to Hayes.

All this comes back around to realistic expectations. Before the Ottawa mess hit the streets and Panarin was on the market and there were far more true sellers than true buyers, Hayes was one of the elite players on the market who could have been had for a king’s ransom. But despite what the darker regions on Twitter might tell you, information and opinions are fluid, and it’s a different landscape today than it was in November.

It’s possible that Duchene goes on the move and another team panics and tries to up their own game. If Winnipeg does go hard for Stone will Boston simply sit and watch? Probably not. Hayes is still a coveted big body, has a scoring touch, and plays down the middle — a thing of Stanley Cup rental dreams, but other things might need to happen before we see a move.

Either way, there should be legitimate concerns in Gorton’s head late at night about the way the past few weeks have played out. And if he losses sleep over it, Ottawa can get some, but not all, of the blame.