NEW YORK -- The question for New York Rangers forward Rick Nash was about their center depth in general. Nash's answer turned into a plug for the continued improvement of rookie center Kevin Hayes.
"Hayes has impressed me," Nash said. "You think about how mature his game is; he's been playing at a high level of college for a while and what is he, 22? It's impressive the maturity in his game, especially to go up against a guy like [Joe] Thornton and hold his own."
Hayes has impressed a lot of people around the Rangers this season. He has become as important to the Rangers' success as any other role player.
Hayes was plugged in as the third-line center in his second NHL game. He has been stable in that position since, giving the Rangers the center depth a team needs to have sustained success in an NHL season.
His next test comes Sunday at Consol Energy Center against the Pittsburgh Penguins (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC, TVA Sports, SN), who roll out a 1-2-3 center rotation that is the envy of the League: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Brandon Sutter.
"Hayes has a good awareness when those kind of guys are on the ice to make sure he's doing the right things," Rangers second-line center Derek Stepan said. "He's got so much more that he can learn, but he's starting to pick it up and he picks it up quick. You go year-to-year and it's about where is your depth at, and I think Hayes has added to our whole team depth."
Center depth was a concern this offseason because the Rangers bought out Brad Richards and let Brian Boyle leave as a free agent.
Hayes was a late addition, signed Aug. 16 after he became an unrestricted free agent because he did not sign with the Chicago Blackhawks, who selected him in the first round (No. 24) of the 2010 NHL Draft.
Arguably more than Stepan, Derick Brassard and Dominic Moore, Hayes has been the glue who has held the center depth together because he was the unknown commodity at the start of the season but started to deliver on potential he had coming out of Boston College.
Without Hayes, the Rangers would not be as balanced down the middle as they are.
Stepan and Brassard rotate in the No. 1 position based on matchups, with Stepan handling some penalty-kill responsibilities. Moore is the defensive-zone faceoff specialist. Hayes plays more than 12 minutes per game and uses his 6-foot-5, 225-pound body to hunt down pucks, forecheck, and keep the pressure on to create scoring chances.
"It's important to have four lines; that's how we had a lot of success last year, we played four lines," Stepan said. "That's how we're going to have success going forward."
Hayes has 15 points, all at even strength, and a plus-2 rating through 39 games. His minutes are somewhat sheltered because coach Alain Vigneault typically tries to get him on the ice against bottom-six forwards in either neutral-zone or offensive-zone starts. But Hayes has generally taken advantage by sustaining puck possession for better than 50 percent of the time he's on the ice.
"For every player that comes into the League, it's easy to play well your first few games, but after that you have a dip where you're not as excited about every game; that's really where you have to figure out how to play," Rangers left wing Carl Hagelin said. "I think he's been doing a great job of that. He's a smart player, really strong on the puck, and he's using his size very well. What the coaches want to see is if they can trust him in the defensive zone, and he's definitely done a better job of that as the season has gone on here."
Hayes said his focus through the first half was on playing well in the defensive zone because he knew he'd earn ice time if he was good in that area. He has improved enough that Vigneault didn't hesitate to roll his lines during New York's recent three-game California road trip despite the hefty competition Hayes would face because the Rangers didn't have the last-change advantage.
Right Wing - NYR
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 10 | PTS: 15
SOG: 43 | +/-: 2
Hayes played regular shifts against Ryan Kesler of the Anaheim Ducks and Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings. Hayes went head-to-head against Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau in the third period against the San Jose Sharks after facing Tomas Hertl for most of the game.
Hayes finished against the Ducks and Sharks with an even-rating; he was a minus-1 against the Kings, but set up Kevin Klein for the game-tying goal in the second period.
The Rangers won all three games by a combined 11-5.
"Not having last change he had to go head-to-head against some big centermen, and he was able to handle it for the most part fairly well," Vigneault said. "I never shied away from any quick changes because I didn't like the matchups. I let him and his linemates handle it, and for the most part I thought they did a good job. He's got size and he's got skill, and when he uses that size and protects the puck he's a pretty good player for us as far as dishing it off."
Now that Hayes feels comfortable in the defensive zone, he said he's gaining confidence in the offensive zone.
"I still need to work on my faceoffs a bit, but my concentration was on D-zone and I think I've gotten a pretty good grip on it, so I think I've been playing well," Hayes said. "I feel really good with the puck and feel like I'm providing for the wings as well. If I'm playing in the offensive zone, that's where the best part of my game is."