New Year’s Day is coming and the Rangers will soon be under pressure to make a big decision on the future of 26-year-old center Kevin Hayes.
The fifth-year Ranger avoided arbitration in late July by signing a one-year, $5.175 million contract. According to the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, an extension cannot be signed until Jan. 1.
Hayes has flourished in his contract year and is in line for a major pay raise. The 6-foot-5 center has registered 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists) through 36 games this season and is playing the most complete and most consistent hockey of his professional career.
On Thursday, the Columbus Blue Jackets edged the Rangers 4-3 in overtime – but Hayes made an impact across 200 feet to help secure a point.
Hayes recorded two assists and tied for the game-high with three takeaways. He also extended his career-high point streak to eight games (five goals, 10 assists over the span). Hayes has now collected an assist in each of the last three games.
At age 26, Hayes has just entered his prime and likely will produce the finest years of his career over the course of his next contract. The burning question is whether those years will come in a Rangers uniform or elsewhere.
General manager Jeff Gorton will soon have to decide whether Hayes is worth a long-term commitment that could be six years and above $6 million per year. That’s a tough call considering that Hayes is having a season like no other in his career. Is his monster 2018-19 campaign an anomaly or a sign of things to come?
Should the Rangers float Hayes on the trading block, their asking price would likely include receiving a top-four defenseman or goal-getting wing already under contract for years to come. Several teams have been sending scouts to The Garden since October to watch Hayes and those impressed may identify Hayes as the high-impact center who can aid a Stanley Cup run.
For the Rangers, every decision they make will be through the prism of a rebuild. That goes for Hayes and fellow pending unrestricted free agent Mats Zuccarello.
It would be hard to fault the Rangers if they receive younger players with lighter cap hits under years of control in exchange for Hayes and Zuccarello given the franchise’s direction. By the time the rebuild transitions to win-now, Hayes could be nearing age 30. Zuccarello is already age 31 and will turn 32 before the start of next season.
Gorton will soon need to identify whether Hayes and Zuccarello are part of this organization’s long-term core. Given Zuccarello’s age, the decision to trade the energetic wing might be the easier of the two. Determining the future of Hayes appears to be a much tougher call considering the on-ice value he’s providing for the Blueshirts here and now.
The Feb. 25 trade deadline is coming fast and the clock is ticking.