Kevin Hayes is the real deal. And moving forward he is one of the most important players on the Rangers roster.
Those two statements may not go under the heading of Shocking News, but, in my opinion, neither can be emphasized enough.
Let's start with the Kevin Hayes being the real deal. His first NHL season saw Hayes rank fifth among all league rookies in both points (45) and assists (28), sixth in goals (17), and tied for third with a +15 plus/minus rating. In the playoffs he tied for third among all rookies by recording seven points, and was tied for second with five assists.
Hayes proved to be everything--and probably more so-- the Rangers hoped he would be when they inked him to a free agent contract out of Boston College last August. Throughout training camp, the pre-season, and then the 82-game regular season Hayes displayed the high-end skill level and confidence in his own abilities one would hope to see from a former first round draft pick (Chicago, 2010) and 2014 Hobey Baker Award finalist.
What really sells me on his future impact with the Rangers--and which segues from point one above to my second point--is how his production took off in the second half of his rookie season. Many first year players start out hot and then hit a wall as the season progresses. With Hayes that was far from the case.
Over his first 40 games of the 2014-15 campaign Hayes scored five goals, added ten assists and totaled 15 points to go along with a +2 plus/minus mark. As time went on he earned the trust of head coach Alain Vigneault with his smart decision making, as well as his solid play in his own end of the ice. In fact, so focused was Hayes on being diligent and responsible in the defensive zone that perhaps his offensive game was placed on the backburner early on.
However in this league and with this coach, it's defense first. Hayes understood that message, proved himself, and then earned more and more valuable ice-time as the season progressed. It was then and there where Hayes high-end offensive skill set flourished.
Hayes scored 12 goals, added 18 assists and totaled 30 points in his final 39 games of the 2014-15 regular season. For much of that time, Hayes was the Rangers best and most consistent forward. There were seven multi-point games in that span, including a pair of three-point nights. Whether he was centering the third line or filling in on the wing in a top-six role when Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis missed some games, Hayes stood out on a consistent basis.
And did I mention Hayes was also a +13 over the final 39 games?
The playoffs were a mixed bag for the 23 year-old Massachusetts native. There was the memorable first goal of his post-season career, an overtime winner to beat the Penguins 2-1 in Game Four during the first round. He also scored the tying goal in New York's come-from-behind Game Seven overtime victory against the Washington Capitals in the second round; and it was his pass that set up Dom Moore's late third period winner in Game One of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
However there were also long stretches where he struggled to get his game going in the more intense, tighter-checking post-season. He finished with two goals, five assists, and seven points in 19 playoff games, tying him for third among all rookies in points and tied for second in assists; but the important number to me is the 19 games of playoff experience he gained. That is what will serve him so well moving forward, and is another reason why I see him as one of the single most important Blueshirts--not only next season, but for years to come.
I am convinced that no matter which position he settles in to, Kevin Hayes is going to play a vital role in the success of the New York Rangers for years to come.