If the Rangers’ front office would have acted in accordance with the wishes of a boisterous minority of Blueshirts fans a scant four or five months ago, Kevin Hayes wouldn’t be a Ranger today. Despite a powerful rookie campaign in which his 17 goals and 45 points were good for 5th in rookie scoring that season, his regression last season left a sour taste in the mouths of a number of fans. He scored just 14 goals and 36 points and was a healthy scratch in game four of the playoff series against the eventual Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins, which, had those fans gotten their way, was regressive enough to unceremoniously send him packing in a kind of effigy to a year we’d all love to forget.
But the front office had a wider field of vision than the bellowing fans who wear their hearts on their sleeves. Instead of kowtowing to the mounting pressure to blow it all up, they kept the 24-year old Boston native, signing him to a two-year bridge contract worth $5.2M ($2.6M AAV) in late July. In spite of the dissatisfaction Hayes’ re-signing produced among that contingent of detractors (here’s lookin’ at you, Rangers Twitter), the decision has been paying off in spades for the Rangers through the first near-quarter of a potentially magical season in which they lead the league in numerous offensive categories — categories he deserves a lot of credit for helping them reach.
Hayes is currently tied for the team lead in scoring with fifth-year standout and fellow linemate J.T. Miller with 18 points in 20 games. He is also second on the team in goals-scored with 9 behind goal scoring leader Michael Grabner (12). Eight of those nine goals are at even strength, too — good for second on the team behind all twelve of Grabner’s tallies. Hayes, Miller, and Grabner, in fact, have combined for a sizable percentage of the Rangers team scoring this season. The trio can lay claim to 29 of the Rangers’ 81 goals for (approximately 36%) thus far this season.
Of course, as great as all that all reads, it’s also important to remember that it’s not all sunshine and roses. Like Grabner, he must credit some of this success to a high shooting percentage. Hayes’ 27.3% shooting rate leads all Rangers thus far this season just ahead of Michael Grabner (26.1%). Yet it will regress to the mean. For context in this regard, his career shooting percentage prior to this season was an average of 13.9%. So surely, no realistic expectation can be held that he’ll continue to operate at nearly double that this year. After all, even the league’s best goal-scorers don’t produce at that kind of rate. Rocket Richard trophy-winning, 50-goal scoring Alex Ovechkin, for example, shot 12.9% last season. In fact, no one in the top-50 goal scorers league-wide last season shot at even 20% on the year. It just doesn’t happen. Players tend to average much closer to the 10-12% range by the time the regular season comes to a close. Still, even if Hayes shot at just 12% for the rest of the season, he’d likely add another 10 goals, give or take, to his seasonal total, potentially finishing the year as a 20+ goal scorer for the first time in his career.
Furthermore, as my colleague Dave Rogers pointed out recently, the Rangers’ league-leading goal differential is also a factor to consider here. Their massive +34 differential nearly doubles the second place Canadiens at +18. This works hand-in-hand with their league-leading 4.05 GF/GP, which dwarfs the second place Blue Jackets at 3.18 — a 0.87 per game difference. Hayes has been an important factor in both regards, even if that’s largely due to his high shooting percentage.
The craziest aspect of all of this might be the fact he’s been as successful as he has thus far despite relatively poor possession metrics. According to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Hayes is second to last among Rangers forwards in CF% with a 41.8% and in FF% with a 44.0% rating. At this point, you’re probably thinking to yourself “Wait — I thought this was an article defending keeping Hayes? Why am I reading about so many drawbacks?” Because they’re important for the big picture, and realistically, even though his individual shooting percentage will regress, and even though his possession metrics leave a lot to be desired, he’s still finding significant success. The fact is, the Rangers have often played with a sizable lead in games this season which lends itself to seeing more shots against as opposing teams press to gain lost ground in those games. It shouldn’t surprise you to know or learn that the Rangers are dead last in the league in shot attempts while ahead at -133 and second to last in unblocked shot attempts while ahead at -72. This has, in effect, somewhat artificially lowered the possession metrics for players like Hayes, who in his prior two seasons met the 50% baseline in both CF% and FF% at an average of 50% and 50.22% respectively. Crazy as it sounds, the Rangers operating as a team with this high of a team shooting percentage (13.67%) and dominating games at this wide a margin is actually having a negative effect on the individual possession metrics of a player like Hayes because of the style in which AV coaches when the Rangers have a lead — especially a comfortable one. His philosophy often focuses on protecting a lead by not pressing the attack in games the Rangers lead in. Instead, he puts a greater emphasis on keeping the opponent’s play to the outside, even if it means more shot attempts against. As this factor slowly meets the mean as the season progresses, Hayes’ possession metrics should actually improve. Fewer blowout games will mean less sitting back letting the opponent effectively rack up shots against, so as his personal shooting percentage falls, the combination of the two will give us a clearer, more trustworthy picture of the player he’s becoming.
Interestingly enough, Hayes’ career has also taken a larger defensive role this year beyond just his improved offensive production. He’s now part of a resurgent team penalty kill where he’s fifth among forwards in SH TOI/G at 28:03 (01:24 per game). He and linemate J.T. Miller have actually become a dynamic duo short-handed, which has probably helped to translate to better 5-on-5 chemistry. Recent NY Daily News beat reporter Justin Tasch wrote on this back on November 4th:
“We’re on the ice together pretty much every shift,” Miller said. “I think the more comfortable we get, the more tendencies we can learn in any situation. I think it’s gonna help.”
In addition to the penalty kill, Hayes has also been entrusted with more defensive zone assignments this season. He’s won 48.2% of defensive zone face-offs this season — a much-improved number compared to his previous two seasons in which he won just 36.8% and 40.9% respectively. In numerous games this year, he’s been out to help defend a lead by taking late-game draws that he’s also winning with better results. His overall face-off percentage this season is 46.7%, up from an average of just over 36% the last two seasons. That’s a significant improvement across the board.
Hayes’ resurgence after a lackluster sophomore season that left many fans sour on the 24-year-old, often including him in any many/any trade hypotheticals, now has them biting their tongues. Seriously — Rangers Twitter, where you at? All-in-all, while he’s not likely to end the year with the 37 goals and 74 points he’s pacing right now (0.54 G/GP and 0.90 P/GP), this early success should help to mitigate his eventual regression to the mean, and he’s still likely looking at a major bounceback season. His improved foot speed, which can be attributed to coming into camp twenty pounds lighter this season, and increased defensive engagement mean he’ll have much more value this season, even when he’s not scoring. He didn’t just come back lighter this season; he came back with a vengeance. One his detractors might ultimately be thankful for after all.