Kevin Hayes Trade: Breaking It All Down

The New York Rangers have traded Kevin Hayes to Winnipeg for a 1st round pick, Brendan Lemieux, and a conditional 4th round pick.

Representing the biggest (expected) trade chip on the table for Jeff Gorton — and coming off an underwhelming return for Mats Zuccarello — there was a lot of focus on this return. And, as expected, it’s become decisive.

Let’s break down the trade:

The 2019 1st round pick

This is the biggest part of the deal, and likely the requirement that got it done. Hayes needed to bring back a first round pick, and he did — despite Gorton waiting until deadline day to have to get it. Apparently Calgary was “in on something big” according to reports but backed off. One has to wonder if that was Hayes.

The Rangers are in a position where the farm system is still devoid of elite talent, and first round picks (even late ones) are critical to getting better scratch off tickets to fill those roles. While I’m sure Gorton pushed for a 2020 1st, it’s not surprising Winnipeg wasn’t willing to move a selection from what’s widely expected to be one of the best drafting classes in recent memory.

Not counting the conditional picks associated with Tampa Bay (if they win the Stanley Cup this year the Rangers get their 2019 1st) or Dallas (if they win two playoff rounds and Zuccarello plays in 50% of those playoff games the Rangers get their 2019 1st) the Rangers now have their own and Winnipeg’s 1st round picks this year. With Winnipeg being considered Cup favorites by some — and paper tigers by others, it should be noted — that pick will likely be a mid-20’s pick. The Rangers will hopefully have a lottery pick themselves, and if Tampa doesn’t win the Cup they’ll have a second 2nd round pick as of this writing.

Ottawa’s continued flip flopping with Mark Stone didn’t help things, and Gorton has had action on Hayes for weeks, so I think it’s telling that it got this deep in the year and the return was still fine.” But like I said above, the most important part of the Hayes trade was the 1st round pick which they got. It makes this entire trade swallow-able because, again, Gorton backed himself into a corner.

And it’s important they got it because ...

Brendan Lemieux

The Rangers were never going to get another team’s high-end prospect — despite the, like, 20 hours where Eeli Tolvanen was supposedly on the market for a rental. That said, there are classes and tiers of prospects, and Lemieux is on the lower end of what I would have wanted back.

Lemieux is big and tough and full of grit which by now should give you an indication of what I’m getting at. The Rangers have prioritized this type of hockey for years, which is fine so long as the players you use this was can actually play hockey. In Lemieux’s case that playing hockey part is up the air since he’s young, but the preliminary findings aren’t great.

He ranked in the bottom half of the top-10 of the Athletic’s Winnipeg Jets rankings ... for a team who had one of the worst rankings in the NHL. His NHL time so far — while short — has been concerning from a “playing hockey” standpoint. See below:

And again:

Scott Wheeler has a comment on what could be the most optimistic outcome, but Lemieux’s PDO was sky high and it really does feel like Winnipeg sold high on him/took advantage of Gorton wanting toughness:

OK with all that out of the way, let’s get into the more nitty gritty. If Lemieux becomes a bottom-six pest (ala Brandon Prust) who straightens things out defensively and isn’t actively hurting the team on the ice, he’s an enormous upgrade over the Cody McLeod or Tanner Glass types who have prowled the Rangers’ fourth line for centuries. And he would allow the team to avoid them moving forward since they apparently can’t help themselves. The problem is that right now that outcome doesn’t look great.

He had a fine year in the AHL last year, with 43 points in 51 games to go alone with 170 penalty minutes, but only 19 of those points were primary ones (I messed up, he has 30 primary points). He’s not a great skater — not a bad one, either — and generally focuses on annoying opponents and bringing a physical edge.

Here’s where that’s a problem: The Jets were reportedly looking to cut bait with Nick Petan, who hasn’t been able to find his way into their NHL lineup. From a hockey player standpoint, Petan may be in the same “tier” of prospect as Lemieux, but his ceiling is miles higher. The question becomes did Gorton ask for Petan and get shut down or did he prioritize the gritty that came with Lemieux? Answering that will tell me a lot about where Gorton’s head was during this trade.

If Lemieux figures things out then this is a fine acquisition for the Rangers. The organization currently sits at 43 contracts and literally needs warm bodies to field the team — especially with Zuccarello returning zero player assets. Lemieux will join the big club right away, and hopefully start sorting out some of the issues with his game. As a 22-year-old, that’s not a crazy hope.

That said:

Is the fear if he doesn’t put it all together. If he just turns into another Glass then it will become a “why is X scratched for Lemieux” type deal that we’ll be talking about for years. If he figures it out, even with the low bar of a playable fourth liner, then we’ll be avoiding those conversations.

The conditional 4th round pick (2022)

I will spend as much time on this conditional pick as likelihood of it happening:

Winnipeg would need to win the Cup for this to trigger.

One quick aside

From the Zuccarello return and now the Hayes return, it does appear as though the Rangers are prioritizing re-stocking the cupboard on their own, rather than taking on team’s castaway prospects. That’s not the worst strategy in the world — remember, you’re always at a disadvantage when you trade for another team’s prospects because they inherently know more than you do about them — but it only works if you’re swinging for the fences every time. That happened in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft, and I would expect it to happen that way again this year.

That said, if the Rangers were so concerned with building this out on their own, part of me wonders why Lemieux is coming back rather than another pick. The Rangers need warm bodies, sure, but the hope is they’re not banking on Lemieux being a big part of the future simply because he can punch people.