Last year Kevin Hayes was playing in his sophomore season, and finding the going tough. He perhaps thought things would come easy after a rookie season that saw him register 17 goals and 28 assists in 79 games. His conditioning over the off-season was questionable, and the performances on the ice were a step below the previous season.
After a hot start, the Rangers were in a stall heading into the New Year, and Hayes was copping more than his fare share of criticism. On December 29th, 2015 the Rangers were in a 4-10-2 stretch and Hayes was scheduled to become a healthy scratch for the first time in his young career.
“In Kevin’s case, I think we made it clear our expectations about him and what we felt he could do were very high. Obviously, he hasn’t lived up to that."
“Did we overestimate his possibilities? I don’t know, time will tell. But I do know that what I’m seeing now, and what we’re seeing now, is not good enough.”
- Alain Vigneault - NYR Head Coach
Going into the eight weeks leading up to the trade deadine, the future of Hayes with the Rangers was questionable.
Less than a month later, and Vigneault gave us more on what was going on:
"This is Kevin's second year and I would say that every player has to go through the process of developing what it takes to be a pro in a day in and day out fashion. He needs to do as far as getting ready for practice, to play, nutrition, conditioning, he is just going through that and understanding that.
He came in last year and the expectations were not the same. He came in this year after a pretty good year and expectations are higher. He had to work through that and learn to work through it and I do think that in the last little while we have seen a better and more consistent player at both ends of the rink.
We need him to play well. He is a big body, when he is on top of his game defending well, protecting it well, making plays with it, using his linemates, he wears the opposition down and we need that from him."
It's been relatively rare that Vigneault has called out publicly any of his players, but in hindsight the message seems to have worked. Although it was too late for Hayes to address his conditioning problems for the 2015-16 season, he took the criticism to heart and went into this year's camp at around 20 pounds lighter.
Slotted into the third line center role, he's paired with J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner to represent the highest scoring unit of the team. He won the league's third star as a result of a four game goal scoring streak over the past week, with a goal in each of the past four games. Together with his line-mates, he's combined for 12 goals and 11 assists in the past five games.
The Hayes we have this year is more in line with the player that the Chicago Blackhawks drafted, but could not sign. And then some...
He was tenth amongst Ranger forwards last year with an average of 13:39 of ice time, trailing even the likes of Jarret Stoll and Jesper Fast, compared to fourth this year with 16:17. Last season he was barely used on the Penalty Kill, with a total of 1:55 over the entire season, this time around he's averaging a healthy 1:19 per game.
Remarkably he's already taken more defensive zone faceoffs this season - 72 - than he did all of last season, when he won 25 of 68 for an underwhelming 36.8 win%. He's actually winning 47.4% of his faceoffs overall this year, an 11.5% improvement in just twelve months.
He scored just the second short-handed goal of the year against the Bruins, Saturday and it ultimately proved to be the game winner. He's on pace for 38 goals, 38 assists and 76 points, and although few would think he's going to maintain that pace, he should easily surpass his career totals of 17 goals, 28 assists and 45 points. In fact he may even break it by the fifty game mark of the season.
It's all good news for the Rangers of course, who also have seen the continued trajectory of J.T. Miller - currently leading the team with 13 points, and Michael Grabner - who has regained some early career form after being at risk of having his NHL career end following a couple of below par seasons.
While the form of the three will undoubtedly return to more sedate levels at some point during the season, it's clearly been an incredible week for Hayes, his line and the Rangers as a whole.