Rangers Should Gauge Trade Interest in Kevin Hayes

If the Rangers don’t sign him long-term, they should trade him before the season starts.

If the New York Rangers are unwilling to sign Kevin Hayes to the five or six-year pact he is seeking between $5.5 and $6 million a season, they should act like he’s already played his final game as a Broadway Blueshirt. Over the weekend, Larry Brooks reported that the team appears ready to sign him to a one-year deal and flip him at the deadline before he heads to unrestricted free agency.

Assuming this is truly the case, general manager Jeff Gorton should just rip the band-aid off and be done with it. Doing so will allow the team to get a better return than they’d get at the trade deadline. There’s always the chance teams want to wait, but that shouldn’t stop Gorton from continuing to work the phones once the season gets underway in October. Impending free agents don’t usually get moved early in-season, but it has happened before.

On October 29, 2013, the Buffalo Sabres dealt impending UFA Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders for Matt Moulson, a 2014 first-round pick and a 2015 second-round pick. Buffalo realized there was no sense waiting until the deadline to move their star player, and got a return from a team that wanted to bolster their depth in an attempt to make the playoffs. The Islanders made the playoffs the prior season and were eliminated in six games in the team’s first playoff appearance since 2007.

The Islanders felt adding Vanek to play alongside John Tavares would not only help the team in the regular season but help get them over the hump in the playoffs. That didn’t happen, and the Islanders actually ended up dealing Vanek at the deadline for prospect Sebastian Collberg and a conditional second-round pick. Vanek tallied 44 points in 47 games with the Islanders, but the franchise decided to deal him instead of signing him long-term.

I laid out the reason why Hayes should be signed long term in this article, and I will bump a few of those points now:

Dominating at 5v5 isn’t something new for Hayes; since entering the league he’s been one of the best players in that regard. In the period of 2014 to 2018, he ranks 26th in primary points per 60, 32nd in points per 60, 37th in goals, and 46th in both total points and primary points.

What makes Hayes special is that in his career to date he’s got a great 5v5 primary point share. In 310 career games, Hayes has recorded 174 points. Of those 174 points, 124 have come 5v5 with 103 of those 124 being primary points, or 83.1% percent primary point share. That’s a pretty amazing number to start a career.

2014 to 2018 5v5 Leaders by Primary Points Percentage

The article also included a comparison to Blake Wheeler, and why I felt Hayes could have a similar breakout. The overarching point was that Hayes is a 5v5 beast and one that makes the Rangers a really good hockey team.

Let me make this clear: Kevin Hayes is not Thomas Vanek. But they are similar in the fact that both were the top player at their position heading into free agency. In 2014 Vanek was the top winger with very little competition. As it stands, the market down the middle for July 2019 includes a few big names, and that stands to benefit Hayes.

Among the biggest names are Matt Duchene (27), Joe Pavelski (34), Tyler Seguin (26), Derick Brassard (30), and Eric Staal (33). Duchene is a player the Ottawa Senators could trade, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he re-signed with his new team. After missing out on John Tavares this summer the Sharks extended Logan Couture, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Pavelski is the next Shark to get another long-term deal. The Dallas Stars have started negotiating with Seguin on an extension, so he’s another name you can potentially cross of the list.

As far as pure centers go you are left with Brassard and Staal, two decent players who teams won’t be building around going forward. If all that falls into place, that leaves Hayes as the crown jewel of the UFA center market, and his ticket would start with a minimum cap hit of $6 million.

If the Rangers held onto Hayes until the deadline they wouldn’t have a problem finding a buyer, but those buyers would be playoff contenders looking to load up. As such, the potential return would be highlighted by non-roster players, secondary prospects, and first-round picks toward the end of the round.

Conversely, if the Rangers tested the market now, it is fair to say that interested teams would include those seeking to sign Hayes long-term, and/or those who are looking to improve their roster in order to make the playoffs. The prospect of having Hayes for a full season and potentially beyond is worth a lot more than a few weeks of the regular season plus playoffs. That means a team trying to contend but who aren’t a lock to make the playoffs could offer up their first-round pick which could land somewhere in the 10 to 15 spot, for example. The Islanders and Calgary Flames made a trade involving Travis Hamonic that resulted in the Islanders securing back-to-back picks in the 2018 draft which landed them Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson.

Such a move would be much more palatable than waiting until to deadline to move him to a team looking to go on a deep run, likely for a pick that is in the mid to late 20s range. Other returns could include a prospect or young roster player that fills a need the Rangers have,  like wingers. These pieces aren’t often made available for a temporary rental, but teams might pay a higher price for a player who they have under control for longer.

I won’t speculate on what teams would be interested in Hayes, but every team in the league should have a varying level of interest in him. For a club trying to contend, he could fill a void in the top-six. For an established contender, he would add much-needed depth by pushing another player down the lineup.

In the NBA, the Golden State Warriors have made it a point to load up year-after-year. The closest thing the NHL has to that is the Toronto Maple Leafs, who added John Tavares to a forward group that already include Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Nazem Kadri. If it came to fruition, the same could be said about the Tampa Bay Lightning and their interest in adding Erik Karlsson to a defense corps already including Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman, and Mikhail Sergachev.

I understand that part of the appeal of trade deadline trades is that most of a player’s salary has been paid out and teams are operating with pro-rated cap space, but a one-year deal for Hayes won’t break the bank to the point that teams can’t add him to the mix.

I strongly disagree with the Rangers’ implied assertion that they are in good hands long-term with Mika Zibanejad, Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson at center, therefore making Hayes expendable. Zibanejad, as talented as he is, has already suffered four or five concussions. Chytil and Andersson both played well in the AHL, but it has been just one season. But if they have determined Hayes isn’t in the plans then Jeff Gorton needs to get as good of a return for him as he can. The situation isn’t something that came out of nowhere, and if these feelings aren’t new then Hayes should have been part of the Rangers February selloff that included Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, Ryan McDonagh, and J.T. Miller.

The Rangers are rebuilding, and at some point they need to turn some of their assets into tangible goods. February’s selloff yielded some quality assets, but a late 2019 first for Hayes at the trade deadline doesn’t move the needle in the second year of the rebuild.

For all we know, this could be Gorton trying to bluff Hayes. It wouldn’t be the first time the franchise played a bit of hardball before signing a key player. The Rangers put Mats Zuccarello on the trading block in 2015, but they came to an agreement on a four-year deal worth $4.5 million a season.

A few years before that, Glen Sather got personal by calling out Derek Stepan while he was still an unsigned restricted free agent seeking a long-term deal.

Via Sean Hartnett of CBS:

It’s unfortunate that Derek has decided to listen to his agent instead of realizing that he’s in a situation that he’s going to get paid; it’s just not today, I hope he starts to get a little wiser about this decision. Every day he misses is going to hurt him.

I don’t think Derek is gonna let this thing linger that long, I don’t think he’s big enough of a fool to figure that (he) would sit out for a year, and it’s going to do (his) career any good.

In Hayes’ case, he has significant value to the team by being part of the roster and by being a trade asset. It would behoove the team to make their decision and go with it, and not take a half-measure by signing him to a one-year deal and keeping him with the option of extending him or trading him. That would lead to him increasing his value and the Rangers potentially losing leverage in the event any of the kids struggle. Hayes has value to the Rangers, but a hot start pushing him into the range of $6.5 million plus would complicate things. Such a situation would lessen the team’s leverage, and increase the likelihood of getting a lackluster return if they do deal him at the deadline.

The decision with Hayes shouldn’t be this hard, but we are where we are and it is honestly surprising that both parties find themselves in this situation.

Stats via Corsica and financial data via Cap Friendly unless otherwise noted.