22-year-old New York Rangers forward Kevin Hayes has impressed at every turn of his rookie season. Just 62 games into his NHL career, Hayes has enthralled the Garden faithful with his incredible hands, powerhouse strength and ability to think ahead of the play.
Hayes spoke one-on-one about his development, the lessons he’s learning in his rookie and offered insight into his tape sessions with associate coach Scott Arniel. Teammates Ryan McDonagh, Chris Kreider and Keith Yandle also shared their thoughts on Hayes’ progress in this XN Sports exclusive.
Successful athletes set their goals. Hayes is on a quest to fully realize his considerable potential. Through 62 games, Hayes has recorded a healthy 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists) while being asked to perform as a third line center.
“My ultimate goal was to make the team out of camp and kind of take it from there,” Hayes said. “When that was accomplished, I set another goal to stay up here. I’ve been lucky enough to do that. Now, I’m just here to help the team in any way possible.
“As a third line center, I’ve been playing with Carl Hagelin every night. Our goal is to not get scored on and to provide some goals. We’ve done a pretty good job of that so far. In order to win in this league, you need to roll four lines. Different guys are going to step up every night. My ultimate goal is to make a difference every time I play.”
McDonagh, the Rangers’ first-year captain, knows there’s a difference between promising rookies that go on to enjoy long-lasting, decorated careers and ones that are doomed to flash-in-the-pan existences.
“He’s got great hockey sense,” McDonagh said. “That’s the thing you can’t teach. You can work on skills, skating ability and strength. At the end of the day, if you’re not a smart player, not able to make smart reads or aren’t coachable, you’re not going to be effective for a long time in this league.”
Hayes is indeed a very coachable youngster. Whether he’s on the receiving end of praise or criticism from coaches and teammates, he soaks up their wisdom like a sponge.
“Kevin takes criticism when it’s there,” McDonagh said. “He takes advice from guys when he needs it. He tries to use it all and analyze it to improve his game.”
During Tuesday night’s 2-1 victory over the rival Islanders, Hayes scored a contender for goal of the season. The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder received a stretch pass from winger Mats Zuccarello, showed tremendous body control and strength to spin off Isles defenseman Thomas Hickey to bag the tying goal at 11:35 of the second period.
Having previously spent two seasons with Hayes at Boston College, Kreider knew that Hayes was physically-ready to play in the NHL. Kreider is impressed by Hayes’ ability to adapt to whatever the coaching staff asks of him and his ability to shake off mistakes.
“Physically, he was beyond ready,” Kreider said. “His skill set speaks for itself. It’s impressive how he’s been able to adapt and just get better over the course of the season. He has a very professional attitude in his approach and his mentality. He’s very strong mentally. If he makes a mistake, he shakes it off and does something positive to kind of offset it. He’s a very good pro. For a guy in his first year in the league, it’s really impressive.”
Every couple weeks, Hayes will pull aside Arniel and sit down with him to review game film.
“I try to grab Arnie once every two weeks to watch a couple of games that I’ve played in,” Hayes said. “We’ll watch every shift – the good things, the bad things, things that could be better. The coaching staff here are a smart group of guys. It’s hard to fail in this organization. It’s nice to know where you stand. They let you know what you’re doing well at and what you can improve on.
“He’s awesome. There’s a reason why he’s here. He played in the NHL for a number of years, he knows what he’s talking about and he’s been a big help for me and the young players here.”
McDonagh remembers constantly studying film as a youngster, and how it allowed him to view the ice differently and pick up on different reads. He believes that film sessions spent with Arniel is paying off for Hayes and will be a hugely-beneficial in his development.
“Arnie is a little more specific with the forwards,” McDonagh said. “For Hazy, it’s huge for him to be able to see his shifts, see his plays, see different reads, see different areas of the ice away from the puck. As a young player, you tend to watch the puck a lot. You’ve got to become aware of what’s around you and anticipate your next play.
“Playmaking ability is a big strength for Kevin already. He will be able to improve defensively and improve his offensive ability knowing where guys are at – or where our next opening is. My first few years, I was looking at clips all the time. Even still at this stage of the season, you’re still watching clips to try and sharpen your game. It helps you get your game up to speed to play as fast and as effectively as you can.”
Having recently joined the Rangers prior to the Mar. 2 trade deadline, Yandle and Hayes have known each other for years.
“I’ve known him throughout my whole life,” Hayes said. “I watched him play high school at Cushing Academy, I followed him when he was playing with Moncton in the ‘Q,’ I see his brother all the time. He lives in my neighborhood. I’ve known Keith and his whole family for a long time. They’re close family friends. Before he got here, I’d grab sushi with him in the summer in Boston. You can’t have enough Boston guys in the locker room.”
Yandle is impressed by Hayes’ development and expects his game to continue elevating in a skyward direction for years to come.
“You can tell he’s going to be a special player, especially it being his first year,” Yandle said. “With him being so big and so strong, it will really help his game. I think he’s going to get better and better every year.”
There’s a good chance Hayes will blossom into a special player given his smarts, natural tools and willingness to take every bit of advice from teammates and the coaching staff. He’s only going to get stronger, and his instincts are only going to get sharper – that’s a scary thing for the rest of the league.