Kevin Hayes isn’t your typical 22-year-old NHL rookie. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound center has impressed head coach Alain Vigneault and teammates by demonstrating ‘veteran poise’ through 17 games as a Ranger.
Watch Hayes closely. You will see flashes of patient playmaking that is reminiscent of a 10-year veteran and the hands of a future star. Teammate Derick Brassard has seen some similarities between Hayes and San Jose Sharks superstar Joe Thornton.
“It’s kind of a big comparison, but he kind of plays like Joe Thornton,” Brassard told WFAN.com earlier this season. “Same size, he plays the same way — long reach, really tall guy, strong on the puck, sees the ice well.”
Alternate captain Marc Staal is impressed by the quick adjustment Hayes has made after being given an immediate chance to prove himself in the NHL following four successful years at Boston College.
“It’s rare to see from a young guy coming into the league like that,” Staal said. “Since he’s got here, he’s been very patient, smart with the puck. He makes some really good plays and controls the puck.”
Through 17 games, Hayes has scored two goals and collected four assists for six points. Stats aside, Hayes has looked comfortable in the fast-paced NHL. Some rookies are overawed by the requirement to think quickly at NHL speed. Hayes is not one of them. He’s earned Vigneault’s trust because of his skill, maturity and willingness to improve.
“Talent has no age,” Vigneault said. “Kevin has good talent. He has a willingness to learn. He has good size and a good skill set. He is improving every game.”
Hayes comes from a family full of big-name hockey stars. Brother Jimmy is playing his fourth season in the NHL. The Florida Panthers winger is enjoying significant success this season, having notched nine points through 13 games. Cousin Tom Fitzgerald enjoyed a 17-year NHL career and currently serves as an assistant general manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Another cousin, Keith Tkachuk became one of the league’s most recognizable faces during the late 1990’s. Hayes remembers travelling to TD Garden and Madison Square Garden throughout his youth to watch his older cousin.
“It was awesome following every team that he was on,” Hayes said. “Every time he was in Boston or New York, I’d meet up with him and some of the guys. It was awesome. I didn’t realize how good he was. I was just so young. I never looked at it like that. He’s played over 1,000 games and scored over 500 goals, so he must’ve done a couple of things right.”
Now retired, Tkachuk is passing along valuable advice to Hayes.
“He’s always checking in and seeing how I’m doing,” Hayes said. “He texted me right before the season. He probably checks in about once a month.”
Hayes remembers the advice that Tkachuk offered prior to his NHL debut. Tkachuk said to Hayes: “Just be consistent. There’s a reason why you’re here. Show them why you’re here.”
After being courted by a slew of teams this offseason, Hayes is happy to be enjoying life in New York with the Rangers.
“It’s a pretty cool experience being here in this huge city,” Hayes said. “It’s an awesome city, a great sports city. The Rangers are near and dear to everyone’s heart. It’s been really cool.”
“Those guys are learning the ropes in the trenches every game,” St. Louis said. “They’re getting better every game. It’s great to see them play the game the right way on both sides of the ice.”
Earlier this season, Hayes credited St. Louis, Brassard and Rick Nash for helping him relax. Hayes said he’s paying particularly close attention to Nash’s professional example. Nash has been a force for the Rangers this season, playing energetic hockey in all areas of the ice. His 14 goals ranks second-highest in the NHL.
“He’s a dynamic player,” Hayes said. “You can tell how hard he worked all summer. He’s one of our better players so far. Just to listen to what he’s saying out there, seeing how he’s being a pro everyday is something that I try to pick apart and incorporate into my everyday life.”
Like a number of exciting youngsters, Hayes has shown plenty of promise. Hayes has a strong chance of eventually blossoming into a star player because he combines his high-ceiling talent with his on-ice smarts and a willingness to soak in wisdom from coaches and teammates.