Hayes Excels in New Role as Shutdown C with Upside

When New York Rangers’ general manager Jeff Gorton chose to trade away his long-time top center Derek Stepan, it was with the expectation that Kevin Hayes—the former first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks—would build on last year’s 49-point season and take ownership of a top-six role.

“He’s going to get the opportunity,” Michael Grabner and J.T. Miller, but finished with a staggeringly high 59.3% defensive zone start (dZS) rate. While not always deployed against top players, Hayes and his linemates were often given tough zone starts, suggesting that he had Vigneault’s trust and nodding towards Hayes’ maturation as a player. To this point in the season, despite what preseason expectations might have been, he still has tough dZS rate of 58.55% and is pacing a disappointing 34 points. This is not the production you want out of a top-six center and, realistically, is lower than Hayes’ skill set should allow. But while we might be disappointed in his point production, as a whole Hayes has evolved into an effective shutdown center who, is still dangerous and shows shows the potential for greater production. While 30-something points doesn’t scream productivity, Hayes is a strong chance generator in an almost laughably difficult position for a top-six player. Of centers who have played 300 minutes, who have a dZS rate of at least 58%, and have taken 200 defensive-zone faceoffs, just three players have a stronger high danger chances for (HDCF) rate than his 52.53%. Of the four, [Mikael Backlund (54.64%), Andrew Copp (57.95%), Mikko Koivu (60.12%), and Tim Schaller (59.35%)] only Koivu and Backlund play more minutes and have more points. But therein lies the difficulty in both understanding Hayes’ role and, in turn, appreciating his game. While Copp and Schaller are well-defined bottom-six centers who don’t play big minutes or get matched against opponents’ top lines, Koivu plays on the Wild’s top line and Backlund is used in a heavy defensive role for the Flames to compliment their other centers (Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett) who get consistently favorable zone starts. For Vigneault, this season, giving Hayes a larger role means using him in all three of these roles, which metastasizes with a heavy dZS and, as a byproduct of being complimented in the middle-six by David Desharnais, makes Hayes a shutdown center. Having a strong shutdown center is advantageous to every team, but it’s tricky when that guy also needs to produce in a top-six role. Few in the entire league do it successfully and, this year, only Koivu really is. In the past, Ryan Kesler and Ryan O’Reilly have owned this role and been highly productive. Patrice Bergeron, often the gold standard of two-way hockey, has never had dZS rate as high as 58%. And while Hayes is not producing at the same clip as Kesler or O’Reilly, he’s not getting the powerplay time that they do to boost their numbers. His five-on-five (5v5) production is actually in line with all three, especially as a goal scorer. It’s tempting to try to draw comparisons to these three, but Hayes doesn’t really parallel one more than the others. He doesn’t have Kesler’s sandpaper, Bergeron’s flare, or the relentlessness that O’Reilly plays with when his game is on. Hayes, almost exclusively, is cerebral. While all three are intelligent—a must have to play a two-way NHL game—Hayes slows the game down in a way that the others don’t. O’Reilly is probably the closest comparison, but Hayes’ game is unique. At times, Hayes’ cerebral play draws the ire of Rangers’ fans, who think that slowness is a lack of effort. But Hayes plays a calculated game and even decides when he’s going to use his size and reach. He doesn’t play with the hustle, speed, or attitude to be constantly noticed (which, to be fair, is somewhere he needs to improve), but sometimes that just means being in the right spot. With neither a defense-first center like Dominic Moore or a highly productive but favorable-start-dependent center (i.e. David Krejci) in the lineup, Hayes isn’t being used in a top-six role, at least, not in the traditional sense. In essence, Vigneault is asking him to fill both roles of middle-six centers where most fit one. But because the Rangers have no other defensively oriented center to lean on, Hayes has been thrown into a shutdown role and managed rather well for it. This is emphasized, if not hammered home, by the fact that Hayes is the Rangers’ leading penalty killer. On a unit that is now ranked second in the entire league at 84.6%, Hayes leads all forwards in short-handed time on ice per game (SHTOI/GP) at 2:16. That’s 30 seconds more than Jesper Fast, who is known exclusively for his defensive prowess and a number that speaks to not only Hayes’ defensive ability, but Vigneault’s belief in it. While the sample is small for players of Hayes’ deployment, he’s been thrust into a shutdown role with tough zone starts and competition, and managed to achieve a net positive result in high-danger chances. That’s a rarity in the NHL and, if the Rangers are going to make a run this year, is a role that Hayes will have to continue to take ownership of. “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." In the top-six, “that guy” that Hayes refers to might not fit the prototype of what Rangers fans were expecting when the season started. However, a productive shutdown center in the middle of your lineup is a differentiator, and one that, while we might not have seen it coming, makes Kevin Hayes an invaluable part of the New York’s lineup.”>head coach Alain Vigneault said. “I’m very confident that he’s going to prove us right, that we had every reason to have faith in him.”

Unfortunately, perhaps as a consequence of New York’s lack of center depth, Hayes’ role hasn’t grown like we might have thought. He’s being used as a defense-first center, which limits his ceiling. With Stepan no longer taking any offensive-zone faceoffs, a larger, more production-oriented role should have been available for Hayes. So, while he has stepped into the top-six, his role probably isn’t what was envisioned when he got the vote of confidence from Vigneault.

Last season, Hayes had career-best productivity on a semi-sheltered line with Michael Grabner and J.T. Miller, but finished with a staggeringly high 59.3% defensive zone start (dZS) rate. While not always deployed against top players, Hayes and his linemates were often given tough zone starts, suggesting that he had Vigneault’s trust and nodding towards Hayes’ maturation as a player.

To this point in the season, despite what preseason expectations might have been, he still has tough dZS rate of 58.55% and is pacing a disappointing 34 points. This is not the production you want out of a top-six center and, realistically, is lower than Hayes’ skill set should allow. But while we might be disappointed in his point production, as a whole Hayes has evolved into an effective shutdown center who, is still dangerous and shows the potential for greater production.

While 30-something points doesn’t scream productivity, Hayes is a strong chance generator in an almost laughably difficult position for a top-six player. Of centers who have played 300 minutes, who have a dZS rate of at least 58%, and have taken 200 defensive-zone faceoffs, just three players have a stronger high danger chances for (HDCF) rate than his 52.53%. Of the four, [Mikael Backlund (54.64%), Andrew Copp (57.95%), Mikko Koivu (60.12%), and Tim Schaller (59.35%)] only Koivu and Backlund play more minutes and have more points.

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But therein lies the difficulty in both understanding Hayes’ role and, in turn, appreciating his game. While Copp and Schaller are well-defined bottom-six centers who don’t play big minutes or get matched against opponents’ top lines, Koivu plays on the Wild’s top line and Backlund is used in a heavy defensive role for the Flames to compliment their other centers (Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett) who get consistently favorable zone starts. For Vigneault, this season, giving Hayes a larger role means using him in all three of these roles, which metastasizes with a heavy dZS and, as a byproduct of being complimented in the middle-six by David Desharnais, makes Hayes a shutdown center.

Having a strong shutdown center is advantageous to every team, but it’s tricky when that guy also needs to produce in a top-six role. Few in the entire league do it successfully and, this year, only Koivu really is.

In the past, Ryan Kesler and Ryan O’Reilly have owned this role and been highly productive. Patrice Bergeron, often the gold standard of two-way hockey, has never had dZS rate as high as 58%. And while Hayes is not producing at the same clip as Kesler or O’Reilly, he’s not getting the powerplay time that they do to boost their numbers. His five-on-five (5v5) production is actually in line with all three, especially as a goal scorer.

It’s tempting to try to draw comparisons to these three, but Hayes doesn’t really parallel one more than the others. He doesn’t have Kesler’s sandpaper, Bergeron’s flare, or the relentlessness that O’Reilly plays with when his game is on. Hayes, almost exclusively, is cerebral. While all three are intelligent—a must have to play a two-way NHL game—Hayes slows the game down in a way that the others don’t. O’Reilly is probably the closest comparison, but Hayes’ game is unique.

At times, Hayes’ cerebral play draws the ire of Rangers’ fans, who think that slowness is a lack of effort. But Hayes plays a calculated game and even decides when he’s going to use his size and reach. He doesn’t play with the hustle, speed, or attitude to be constantly noticed (which, to be fair, is somewhere he needs to improve), but sometimes that just means being in the right spot.

With neither a defense-first center like Dominic Moore or a highly productive but favorable-start-dependent center (i.e. David Krejci) in the lineup, Hayes isn’t being used in a top-six role, at least, not in the traditional sense. In essence, Vigneault is asking him to fill both roles of middle-six centers where most fit one. But because the Rangers have no other defensively oriented center to lean on, Hayes has been thrown into a shutdown role and managed rather well for it.

Embed from Getty Images

This is emphasized, if not hammered home, by the fact that Hayes is the Rangers’ leading penalty killer. On a unit that is now ranked second in the entire league at 84.6%, Hayes leads all forwards in short-handed time on ice per game (SHTOI/GP) at 2:16. That’s 30 seconds more than Jesper Fast, who is known exclusively for his defensive prowess and a number that speaks to not only Hayes’ defensive ability but Vigneault’s belief in it.

While the sample is small for players of Hayes’ deployment, he’s been thrust into a shutdown role with tough zone starts and competition and managed to achieve a net positive result in high-danger chances. That’s a rarity in the NHL and, if the Rangers are going to make a run this year, is a role that Hayes will have to continue to take ownership of.

“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.”

In the top-six, “that guy” that Hayes refers to might not fit the prototype of what Rangers fans were expecting when the season started. However, a productive shutdown center in the middle of your lineup is a differentiator, and one that, while we might not have seen it coming, makes Kevin Hayes an invaluable part of the New York’s lineup.

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