NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers were reconfigured after losing the 2014 Stanley Cup Final in five games to the Los Angeles Kings. Depth at certain positions, center in particular, was a big question following the departures of Brad Richards and Brian Boyle.
Right Wing - NYR
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 28 | PTS: 45
SOG: 111 | +/-: 15
One of the replacements was Kevin Hayes
, who won a national championship in 2012 and was a 2014 Hobey Baker Award finalist during his four seasons at Boston College. The No. 24 pick of the Chicago Blackhawks
in the 2010 NHL Draft, Hayes signed with the Rangers as a free agent after he could not agree to a contract with the Blackhawks.
Hayes excelled in college as a wing, but he broke camp with the Rangers slotted in as third-line center. The requisite adjustment period led to a slow start; he had 15 points in his first 40 games before blossoming into an integral part of the Rangers, who won the Presidents' Trophy.
Hayes made a late push for Calder Trophy consideration by leading the Rangers with 29 points after the All-Star break, including 13 (four goals, nine assists) in his final 13 games, to finish with 17 goals and 45 points.
Through those early-season growing pains, the Rangers gained confidence in Hayes' game. All Hayes needed was time to figure out how to be a pro.
"I wouldn't say the beginning of my season was a failure, but it was just kind of learning the ropes," Hayes said. "I wasn't playing scared, but I didn't want to make any mistakes for the coach to lose faith or for the guys to lose faith. Every game, I was trying not to make any mistakes, I wasn't really trying to make plays.
"Once I got over that hump, even though I made a mistake, it will be all right with the coach and with the guys. For my confidence it was big. I was never really too worried about getting points. I've been an offensive guy my whole life, and luckily it started to come."
Hayes' game evolved once he found a home centering Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis. That trio jelled so quickly that coach Alain Vigneault kept it intact April 7 against the New Jersey Devils instead of moving St. Louis with Rick Nash and Derick Brassard in place of Mats Zuccarello, who was given the night off because of overall body soreness.
Hayes had a goal and an assist, and the line totaled six points in a 4-2 win that clinched the NHL's best record. It will likely remain together when the Rangers play the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Thursday at Madison Square Garden (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, ROOT, MSG).
Another factor in Hayes' development was Vigneault's player-friendly, high-octane style of offense that helped the Rangers finish third in scoring at 3.0 goals per game.
"It's a very north-south program," Hayes said. "For me it helps my game. I've played with [Hagelin] pretty much the whole year. He's a very north-south player as well. He's easy to play with. Playing with Marty's been great. He's always out there giving tips and itty-bitty stuff that will help our game in the long run."
Hayes and the Rangers will need all pistons firing against the Penguins. Despite a 1-4-1 skid to end the season and coping with injuries on defense, the Penguins are led by elite forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury led the NHL with 10 shutouts.
"They have two of the best players in the League, and their goalie is really good," Hayes said. "They play a great style of hockey, and it should be a fun series. It's obviously going to be an unbelievable time and unbelievable experience."
New York, which is built to win now, will be better for the emergence of Hayes. All the rookie needed to bloom into an impact player was time and patience.
"I'm not sure if there was a single point, but I thought I've been playing better since the All-Star break," Hayes said. "Obviously, it took time and I'm thankful for the coach and the players to kind of go along with me and kind of not kick me when I'm down, but give me some advice and show me what I was doing wrong. Since the All-Star break, I've been playing the game I want to play."