New York Rangers Kevin Hayes Must Step Up


New York Rangers Kevin Hayes from 2014-2016

The 2014-2015 season was, in many ways, a season-long coming out party for New York Rangers forward Kevin Hayes. Early on, despite his point production being somewhat inconsistent, the effort and hockey sense were clearly apparent. That effort and hockey sense began to manifest itself later in the season in the form of actual contributions to the scoresheet, with the promising rookie center ultimately finishing with 17 goals and 45 total points. Throw in a plus-15 rating and all signs pointed to the Rangers having discovered a gem, or so it was thought.

New York Rangers | Blue Line Station
New York Rangers forward Kevin Hayes /

Fast forward to the 2015-2016 campaign and the picture was entirely different. Statistically, the differential from season one to season two was not staggering. Hayes put up 9 fewer points, yes, but his shot total was up, his average time on ice was up slightly and, interestingly enough, he potted more power play and game winning goals (3 to 1 in both categories) year over year. His face off percentage was essentially the same, a horrible 36% percent or so, but again, the numbers don’t leap off the page to tell the true story of just how little the second year center contributed.

Kevin Hayes and Alain Vigneault

New York Rangers | Blue Line Station
New York Rangers Head Coach Alain Vigneault /

As any athlete or coach would attest, being a solid professional is not entirely centered around the stat line. This is not to dismiss the importance of metrics, but rather to point out that there are a multitude of ways to evaluate performance and that not all of them wind up with a metric attached to them. In the case of Hayes, his second season with the New York Rangers could be categorized as a complete failure in essentially every practical sense, regardless of his statistical output. This was not the same player of the previous season, and had Head Coach Alain Vigneault not demonstrated a remarkable, and perhaps inappropriate amount of patience towards the young pivot his statistical output would have more closely represented his overall performance.

To say that Vigneault afforded Hayes a long leash this past season would be like saying a nuclear bomb makes noise. In other words, a huge understatement. Hayes was permitted to wander aimlessly first from one shift to the next, then from one game to the next and then, eventually, from one month to the next until the season was over. With the exception of a slap-on-the-wrist two game benching in December, and some harsh words as well, Hayes was seemingly immune from any and all consequences.

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This reality would not be troublesome if it represented a pattern of coaching on Vigneault’s part. If, for instance, the coach was patient and nurturing with all of his young talent, giving them time to grow into their skins as professionals, then the treatment of Hayes this past season would be understandable. This, though, is not the case.

In the case of J.T. Miller, Vigneault seemed to demonstrate a very low threshold of tolerance for either poor play or effort from the former 15th overall pick. This lack of tolerance was evident in Miller being bumped from Top 6 forward status to fourth line duties from one shift to the next.

Additionally, Miller was seemingly inserted into the power play mix by Vigneault only begrudgingly despite his production and effort remaining far more consistent than Hayes’ from day one. Perhaps more critical, Miller said all the right things throughout the season regardless of how he was handled, while Hayes appeared to not truly absorb just how underwhelming his play typically was. And don’t get us started on Vigneault’s reticence towards inserting Dylan McIlrath into the lineup despite both Dan Girardi and Dan Boyle under-performing for much of the season.

Regarding Hayes, an example of his defiance/obliviousness was captured in a December 29th article by Brett Crygalis of the New York Daily News;

"“The reason why I’m here — I’m confident in my abilities,” Hayes said. “Things aren’t going my way, aren’t going the team’s way, I’m not going to switch. There [are] things I need to switch, get pucks in their end, do things a little bit better, but I’m not going to stray away from what I bring to the table. I’m confident with what I have.”"

Where Hayes Goes Wrong

Now, athletes need to be confident. Athletes need to be strong-willed and aggressive and focused on the positive. They do not, however, benefit from being blind to their own deficiencies. Remember that this quote was captured just as Hayes was finally being benched for his poor play, and it was preceded by a number of similar quotes as well, yet Hayes still felt it was appropriate to say that he only needed to “do things a little bit better” and that he wasn’t “going to stray away” from what he brings to the table. What, exactly, was he bringing to the table if he was being benched?

This tone-deaf approach by Hayes was perhaps the most disturbing aspect of his season. It demonstrated a lack of maturity and a willful choice to ignore the need for him to work harder and contribute more. Theories that the absence of Carl Hagelin, lost to free agency over the summer of 2015, was the primary reason for the down-tick in Hayes’ game are entirely misguided.

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Do certain pairings or line combinations work better than others? Yes, of course. In the end, though, it is incumbent on each and every player to find ways to contribute regardless of who jumps the boards with them from shift to shift. If Hayes was indeed impacted by the loss of Hagelin then it was his responsibility to find ways to work with the assets provided. The other option is to find ways to work with linemates in Hartford or in another NHL city.

New York Rangers at Ottawa
New York Rangers left wing Rick Nash /

While the New York Rangers are not stocked offensively by any means, Hayes should be informed by management that, in no uncertain terms, these options apply to him. Presuming Rick Nash is not dealt, and presuming newly acquired Pavel Buchnevich makes the roster out of camp, the Rangers will still have  minimum of three or four forward slots to fill when the back end of the active roster is factored in. Hayes should not be guaranteed one of these slots by any means, and frankly the organization should consider him as potential trade bait to bring in some much needed size and grittiness up front. He still has value with one poor season under his belt. If he follows last season with another clunker his trade value plummets.

All things considered, this is a pivotal season for Kevin Hayes, regardless of where he plays. It is even more critical for the New York Rangers organization and, more specifically, Alain Vigneault. Based on some dubious personnel and strategic decisions throughout the season, plus a striking inability to steer the team away from constant system-based breakdowns, the bulletproof facade that Vigneault could claim in his first two seasons with the club has shown signs of breaking down. The team may very well be in need of a  drastic makeover in terms of culture, and banking on Hayes to contribute to that bottom line could prove futile.