Kevin Hayes Would Provide Boost to Jets’ High Octane Offense

Each having what the other needs, the Rangers and Jets should make short work of a Kevin Hayes trade

It sure feels like we’re counting down the days of late. Not just to the trading deadline — a mere 20-odd days away now — but, most importantly, on the days remaining in Kevin Hayes’ tenure as a New York Ranger.

The star center, 26, has called Broadway home through the first five years of his NHL career, but with unrestricted free agency looming over a Rangers’ team completing their first year of a rebuild, the writing is on the wall regarding his future in New York.

For all he’s done right as one of the most productive players to skate for New York this season, it’s simple math, really. The value he offers the franchise in a trade is simply greater than the value of keeping him from said market when his team is destined to miss the postseason for a second straight year.

To his credit, Hayes has handled the rumors of his would-be exit with tremendous professionalism.

”Obviously it’s going to come up a lot more now than it has, and there has been more chatter about who needs what, who needs a center, and all that, but I’ve been able to keep my mind pretty clear,” Hayes told The New York Post in late January. “Everybody knows when the trade deadline is and what that means. Anyone who says otherwise isn’t telling the truth.”

“At the same time, everybody knows how I feel about wanting to stay. I’ve loved my five years here. I love the organization, the guys, the staff, the city, the fans. I really can’t see myself anywhere else. But it’s also kind of out of my hands.”

Indeed it is. With nary a piece of trade protection to his name to say otherwise, the only thing Hayes is in control of his is own level of play, which has been next-level in spite of the uncertainty of his future on Broadway. He’s third among Rangers skaters in points this season even after missing nine games (36 points in 42 games), is second in points per game (0.86), and third with 22 5-on-5 points, all of which help to highlight the impact he’s had on a team devoid of much offensive talent.

Despite his growth as a player and his offensive impact, the optics of the Rangers’ immediate future haven’t changed, which is why he’s a near-certainty to be dealt. If anything, due in part to the same optics, they exacerbate the need to move him.

He’s already been linked to Boston. Calgary, too. Both the Bruins and Flames, as well as a team like the Predators would make for interesting trading partners. But nowhere appears a more perfect fit for both player and franchise then the Winnipeg Jets.

The Jets, who lead the Central division by four points, are also currently sitting second in the West with 70 points; they trail the Calgary Flames for the Conference lead by just three points. Their plus-39 goal differential is also third-best in the entire NHL.

This current iteration of the Jets is a bit top heavy, and sure could use the quality of center depth Hayes could offer an already Cup-contending roster — especially when considering just how much contending teams emphasize depth down the middle. That explains why they’ve been sniffing around Kevin Hayes of late, according to Rick Carpiniello of The Athletic.

Make no bones about it — nothing is unseating Mark Scheifele, the Jets’ second-leading scorer this season (62), from the teams’ first line. But the drop off in points from Scheifele to Bryan Little (34), who centers Winnpeg’s second line with Patrik Laine, is stark. Little has scored just two fewer points than Hayes on the year, but in ten more games.

That drop in point production becomes precipitous once you get to the Jets’ third line center, Adam Lowry who has just 14 points in 50 games.

It sure stands to reason that a club in as fortunate a position as Winnipeg is would see fit to bolster their depth ahead of what they hope is a very long playoff run — just as they did last year by acquiring Paul Stastny at the deadline, before losing him to free agency. Since the Jets still haven’t replace what they lost last July, there’s reason to believe they’d make a similar move this year at the deadline for a center. Even more so given the pending restricted free agency of Laine, who’s next contract could dramatically alter the quality of team these Jets can put together around him moving forward.

The Jets don’t just have an inherent need for a player of Hayes’ caliber, either. They have the requisite assets to entice the Rangers in making a deal with them in the first place. Winnipeg owns its own first- and second-round picks in this years’ draft, not to mention a trove of up-and-coming prospects that should have the Rangers’ interest piqued.

It’s unclear exactly what New York’s ask for Hayes is going to be, but recent history suggests it won’t be paltry. From Stastny to Martin Hanzal, quality two-way centers like Hayes tend to go for a premium every year, and this season is unlikely to buck the trend. Though Hayes’ market value is affected by what happens with Matt Duchene in Ottawa, the Rangers will still be very much in control given the market demand that’s sure to follow their asset.

Hanzal was traded (with Ryan White and a fourth-round pick) from the Arizona Coyotes to the Minnesota Wild for a first- and second-round pick, a conditional 2019 selection, and a forward prospect. Buyer’s remorse aside, there’s little reason the Rangers can’t be expected to ask for the same.

Barring the unlikely inclusion of a prospect like Kristian Vesalainen, Winnipeg’s first-round pick is a requirement. That is non-negotiable. Everything else might be, however.

It’s probable the Rangers would have interest in Sami Niku. The 22-year-old rookie defenseman is a good skater and has a long-range outlook that projects him an intelligent, puck-moving defenseman.

Niku was an AHL All-Star and won the AHL’s Defenseman of the Year award in 2017-18 on the back of a 54-point campaign. He also had three points in nine games, as Manitoba fell in the Divisional finals to Rockford. He has only three NHL points to his name, but has skated in just twelve games as his professional career has only begun.

Niku would arguably top the list of potential young left-handed defensemen on next season’s roster, with hopefuls like Libor Hajek and K’Andre Miller rounding out the only other notable names who might be in contention this early.

Mason Appleton, 23, is another name to consider. A playmaking winger, Appleton projects as a quality middle-six point-producer and comes with a solid 6’2 NHL frame.

Appleton, like Niku, was a force for the Manitoba Moose, where the two played together last season. He, too, was named First All-Star Team, as well as All-Rookie team, and won the league’s Dudley “Red” Garrett Trophy, given out to the most outstanding rookie each season.

If the Rangers’ take another stab at their roster forwards at the deadline, or even this summer, spots could open quickly to allow for someone like Appleton to make an immediate impact, should they acquire him in the deal.

Or perhaps the Rangers would go for the son of an old ghost in Brendan Lemieux. If Max Domi can pull on a Canadiens sweater, why couldn’t the spawn of Claude don a blue shirt?

Lemieux, 22, put up fantastic numbers (43 points in 51 games) in his second professional season playing in the AHL for Manitoba in 2017-18. He’s also a bit of a chip off the old block in that he projects to be a player much like his father was — aggressive and agitating to play against. New York isn’t in particular need of more soldiers, but when you’re building an army, bigger numbers rarely hurt.

Lemieux’s style of play would likely endear him to David Quinn, who is still looking to put his stamp on the kind of team he wants to see skating on Garden ice under his guide.

Beyond this there are prospective defensemen Dylan Samberg and Logan Stanley, as well as current roster players on the outside looking in, like Nic Petan, who is actively being shopped. The Rangers would also be wise to see if they can’t shake loose Jack Roslovic, who the Jets are apprehensive to let go of just yet.

An added wrinkle to all of this is that win or lose, the Jets, by both cap projection and destination choice, are unlikely to keep Hayes away from the market this July. One the Rangers could theoretically circle back on if they saw fit to bring Hayes right back to New York. It’s an idea worth pondering, even if historical precedent largely doesn’t favor it, as Larry Brooks of The New York Post covered recently.

Regardless of whether the two sides see a long-term future together, the immediate future for both is best served with a trade. For Hayes, it represents a chance, even if only as a rental, to gun for glory while continuing to build his free agent value. For the Rangers, it’s another opportunity to stock up on lottery tickets as the franchise continues its rebuilding efforts.

If the two are to cross a bridge again down the line, so be it, but if not, the Rangers would be remiss to not take full advantage of Hayes’ value this season by dangling him for a maximal return to a team just like the Jets.