On August 20, 2014 Kevin Hayes decided to sign with the New York Rangers over his hometown Boston Bruins, his brother’s Florida Panthers, and a wide array of other teams.
Hayes’ decision came with the expectation that he could contribute to a squad that featured both veteran and young talent, learning on the go with the youngsters while being taught by the veterans. He performed well in training camp and the preseason, yet it was still surprising when he was listed on the active roster for opening night.
Fast forward to the Rangers home opener, and Hayes was making his NHL debut for the Rangers just two months later in New York, playing unimportant minutes to get his feet wet. The prized signing scored his first goal in his fourth NHL game, gaining the respect of his teammates. Derick Brassard, a superb center in his own right, compared Hayes’ game to that of superstar Joe Thornton just four games into Hayes’ career From CBS New York:
“It’s kind of a big comparison, but he kind of plays like Joe Thornton. Same size, he plays the same way — long reach, really tall guy, strong on the puck, sees the ice well.”
Hayes would gradually gain playing time on Broadway, etching out a consistent third-line center role, filling in in pinches on the first and second lines when necessary. Hayes scored 45 points, then tallied an OT winner, a game-tying goal in a game 7, and seven points in the playoffs for the Rangers as well.
Quite the successful rookie season for a forward that just wanted to make the team out of preseason.
With that, Hayes is expected to take a step forward rather than back in 2015-16. It is currently unknown if Hayes will stick at center on the third line or move up to the second line right wing, but regardless of where Hayes plays, the fear of the “sophomore slump” will be in the minds of analysts and fans.
The sophomore slump is a commonly believed issue in second-year players out of college–or even juniors–as their numbers take a dive rather than a jump due to fatigue from an increase in games played and opponents becoming familiar with the players.
It is essential to the Rangers’ success as a team that Hayes does not take a step back, as regardless of where he plays in the lineup he will need to put up points to help replace the loss of Martin St. Louis and Carl Hagelin, among others.
Luckily for the Rangers, signs are pointing to Hayes’ play improving rather than worsening. Hayes did not hit his stride until February, scoring 28 of his 45 points in 35 games in the final two months and a few games of the regular season. His surge came with an increase in ice time, a consistent spot on the third line, and gaining trust from head coach Alain Vigneault.
Worth noting: as Hayes’ ice time increased he saw much greater defensive competition, yet his scoring continued at a rapid pace rather than slowing down. His ability to use his big body to overpower defensemen, combined with his quick thinking and skill with the puck proved too much to handle for even top pair defensemen.
Hayes was not overworked by any means, however, as he tallied an average of just over 13:03 per night in the regular season in 2014-2015, which fits in perfectly with his role as a third-line center.
Forwards that normally get stuck in sophomore slumps do so because of fatigue and defensive familiarity from too much ice time, as they played on their respective teams’ top two lines and tallied greater minutes per nights. Hayes will likely have the opportunity to play more minutes with Martin St. Louis retired, allowing his scoring to go up rather than decrease.
For Hayes to be hit by the sophomore slump, he will need to be used too heavily by a coach that is known for being conservative with ice time and young talent in Alain Vigneault. Or he will have to be used inconsistently between right wing and center. Hayes is familiar with second liners Chris Kreider (from college) and Derek Stepan (from some time spent on his line in the playoffs) but would likely be learning on the go once again with any perspective third linemates.
Ironically enough, on any potential third line, Hayes would likely be the teacher rather than the student, a sign of trust from the Rangers that the sophomore slump will not hit the young talent in center-ice on Broadway.