NEW YORK -- New York Rangers forward Martin St. Louis wanted to stop himself from making a comparison he knows isn't fair to rookie center Kevin Hayes. He couldn't resist.
"I don't know if it's a fair assessment, but in terms of Hayes' size and his vision and his skill set he reminds me a lot of when I played with Vinny [Lecavalier]," St. Louis said. "Good reach and really good with the puck. I know he knows where I'm going. There's definitely some similarity there."
Lecavalier once scored 52 goals and had 108 points playing with St. Louis on the Tampa Bay Lightning. They won the Stanley Cup together in 2004, capping a season when St. Louis won the Hart Trophy and the Art Ross Trophy with 94 points in 82 games.
Hayes won't turn 23 until May 8, and he's coming off a dominant rookie season, one all the more notable because he scored 15 points in his first 40 games before catching fire and finishing with 30 points in his final 39 games. He was a college hockey player for the past four seasons, scoring 132 points in 142 games for Boston College.
"That's why I said I don't think it's a fair assessment, because he's a young guy," St. Louis said, "but in the way he plays it reminds me of how I played when I played with Vinny."
Hayes' response to hearing St. Louis compare him to Lecavalier:
"That's a little stretch," he said, laughing.
Nobody is suggesting Hayes is going to be a 50-goal, 100-point player at any point in his NHL career because there are so few of those players, but Hayes proved in the second half of his rookie season why he is such a critical player for the Rangers and why he's an emerging star in the NHL.
At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, Hayes has the reach to be responsible defensively and an offensive threat. He led the Rangers with 29 points after the All-Star break. In many games he was the Rangers forward who generated the most offensive chances.
"His skill level and his overall confidence in his abilities has permitted him to hang on to the puck sometimes just a little bit longer, that fraction of a second that enables him to find an open man and make a play that seems not to be there be there," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "He's had some real good looks. He's become a real important part of our team."
Hayes handles the speed of the game with ease and never looks a step behind despite his size. He uses that size to protect the puck so he can make plays. He uses his long reach to disrupt plays in the defensive zone so the Rangers can start the attack.
Hayes said he was always confident he could become this type of X-factor for the Rangers.
"I've felt like I belong the whole time," Hayes said. "There's been times when I wasn't playing great, but I'm a pretty confident person and I'm confident in my abilities."
That confidence propelled him through the early-season growing pains, when Hayes was admittedly focused on trying to survive in the NHL.
"At the beginning of the year I didn't want to do anything bad that would get me benched or get me sent down," Hayes said. "Once you kind of got over that hump it allows you to bring other aspects into your game."
Hayes said he knew he needed to hone in on his defensive skills in the first half of the season. It was a difficult adjustment not only from college hockey to the NHL, but from playing right wing at Boston College to center for the Rangers.
"It's a lot of video and asking questions," Hayes said.
It started to pay off right around the midpoint of the season, when the Rangers were on their California road trip from Jan. 7-10. They won games against the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks.
Hayes had one assist on the trip and averaged 11:10 of ice time in the three games, but he handled some important assignments, such as shutting down Sharks center Joe Thornton.
"I remember him playing earlier in the year against San Jose, and the way he played Thornton's line defensively was the first time I was really impressed by his game," Rangers forward Rick Nash said.
The minutes started to go up for Hayes after that trip, and his production followed. His goal against the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 20 started a stretch when Hayes became the Rangers' most prolific forward.
"It's my first year obviously and I felt fine on the ice to be honest at the beginning of the year but I wasn't producing the way I wanted to produce," Hayes said. "I wasn't upset about it, to be honest with you. I've been an offensive guy my whole life and I knew the points would eventually come."
Hayes got comfortable playing on the third line with Carl Hagelin and J.T. Miller; it was the Rangers' best line at times.
"They were dictating games," Nash said.
Miller got bumped into the top-six to play with Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider when St. Louis was out of the lineup with an injury last month. St. Louis joined Hayes and Hagelin when he returned, and it would appear he'll stay there for the start of the playoffs.
"You can have all the size you want, you've gotta be able to use it," St. Louis said. "When Hayes uses his size and his reach it definitely helps him create room for himself and his linemates. He's got good hockey IQ too. Put that together it makes him a pretty solid player."