USA TODAY Sports Images

Hartnett: Hayes Could Be Eventual Odd Man Out For Rangers

Sean Hartnett
July 31, 2018 - 10:07 am

By Sean Hartnett

The Rangers and center Kevin Hayes agreed to a one-year pact on Monday evening, avoiding an arbitration hearing that was scheduled for Thursday. Whereas the Rangers showed a long-term commitment to 24-year-old defenseman Brady Skjei by locking him down to a six-year deal, Hayes’ long-term future with the club is less certain.

Hayes’ new deal comes in a shade above $5.1 million. That’s probably a little less than what he would potentially earn per year on an open market multi-year contract. Unless Hayes takes a significant leap forward in his production, a $6 million average-annual deal doesn’t appear to be a realistic ask for the 26-year-old pivot.

The Rangers currently possess a surplus of centers ahead of September’s training camp. This includes Hayes, Mika Zibanejad, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ryan Spooner, Lias Andersson, Filip Chytil, Brett Howden, Boo Nieves and Peter Holland. Though Namestnikov, Spooner, Andersson, Chytil and Nieves can also line up on the wing, there will need to be some trimming as preseason roster competitions are settled.

If Zibanejad is the Blueshirts’ number one center with Chytil, Andersson and Howden pushing for prominent roles in the near future – where does this leave Hayes? Given the Rangers’ rebuilding strategy and wealth of options at center, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Hayes moved before the 2019 trade deadline.

At present, Hayes offers value to contending hockey clubs as a number two/number three center who can provide close to 50 points while demonstrating a growing aptitude on the defensive end and on the penalty kill. Former head coach Alain Vigneault trusted Hayes with 2:15 shorthanded minutes per game to lead Rangers forwards last season.

Hayes has shown himself to be the kind of forward who generates positive offensive zone time and knows how to use his 6-foot-5, 217-pound body to maintain possession of the puck in tight areas. His 25 goals scored during last campaign was a career best.

It feels like Hayes has taken one step closer to unrestricted free agency in the 2019 summer. Hockey is a numbers game and the Rangers have plenty of younger, less expensive options at center. Chytil and Andersson are clearly the future and are being groomed for roles in the top nine. All signs seem to point to Hayes being the eventual odd man out and playing his hockey elsewhere in March.

As for Spooner, his arbitration hearing is scheduled for Saturday. He is the last remaining Rangers’ restricted free agent. The last Ranger to go to arbitration was Nikolai Zherdev in 2009. After Zherdev was awarded $3.9 million through arbitration, the Rangers walked away and Zherdev signed with now-defunct KHL club Atlant Moscow Oblast.

In short, don’t expect a similar scenario to play out for Spooner.

Follow Sean on Twitter -- @HartnettHockey