BOSTON -- Kevin Hayes heard the news that center Derek Stepan was traded from the New York Rangers to the Arizona Coyotes on June 23 and quickly realized what it meant for him. Hayes sent a text message to his personal trainer, Brian McDonough, that same day.
"I said, 'Hey, we got a big opportunity here, no regrets,'" Hayes told NHL.com at the Commonwealth Avenue Charity Classic at Boston University in mid-July. "This is something that could help me for the rest of my career."
With Mika Zibanejad expected to replace Stepan as the No. 1 center, Hayes will enter Rangers training camp next month as the projected No. 2.
[RANGERS 31 IN 31: Inside look at New York Rangers | Three questions facing Rangers]
Hayes, 25, who primarily has been New York's third-line center, will face stiffer competition than he did in his first three NHL seasons. His responsibility to produce offense and be better defensively will be greater. His role on the power play likely will increase too. Stepan averaged 2:31 of ice time per game on the power play in the past three seasons; Hayes averaged 1:11.
"It's time to prove that I'm capable of being that guy," Hayes said. "You don't want to be in the same spot your whole career. I have a really good opportunity and I need to grab that and show the coaches and Rangers fans that I belong there."
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said Hayes told him upon arriving in New York three years ago that he wanted a big role. He knew he'd have to earn it, grow into it, and develop into a go-to-player. He knew it would come with ups and downs too.
Vigneault said the Rangers wouldn't have traded Stepan if they didn't believe Hayes was ready for it.
"He's going to get the opportunity," Vigneault said. "I'm very confident that he's going to prove us right, that we had every reason to have total faith in him."
Hayes said the timing of this promotion fits on his career growth chart. He finished with 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in 79 games as a rookie in 2014-15 playing between Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis for most of the last quarter of the season and throughout New York's run to the Eastern Conference Final.
Video: NYR@DET: Hayes buries Miller's pinpoint feed in 2nd
"You could see the potential in him," Vigneault said.
The view was foggier in Hayes' second season. To say he went through growing pains would be putting it mildly.
Hayes admitted conditioning was an issue, that he wasn't in good enough shape when he arrived for training camp, and the problem never went away. He dipped to 36 points (14 goals, 22 assists) in 79 games and didn't play fast or aggressively.
Vigneault publicly chastised Hayes. He chose his words carefully but clearly wasn't happy with Hayes' effort. The Rangers season ended with Hayes as a healthy scratch for Games 4 and 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"The way the season ended my second year was super embarrassing, not playing in the playoffs," Hayes said. "Your team loses and you're not even there with them on the ice. That's something I hope no one has to go through. It [stinks], but it's motivation."
Hayes responded last season the way Vigneault and the Rangers hoped he would. His conditioning improved and his offense returned. He had 49 points (17 goals, 32 assists) in 76 games.
"I sat down with my trainer [McDonough] and we came up with a game plan and pretty much stuck with it to a T," Hayes said. "This year, it's the same thing with a couple of stuff added in. I am hoping to be in better shape than I was when I came in last year."
Video: NYR@FLA: Hayes shows patience to net nifty backhand
Hayes said he and McDonough chose to add more to his training regimen the day Stepan was traded because he knew right away that he'd be relied on to do more, play more and be better.
"Kevin has never shied away from taking responsibility about his game," Vigneault said. "He's very honest about where he thinks he is and he can take feedback and he knows how to use that feedback. We believe this opportunity that's in front of him, he's going to jump on it, take it and ride with it."