Days after becoming an unrestricted free agent, Kevin Hayes has made his decision on which NHL club he will join for at least the next two seasons. The former Boston College standout and Chicago Blackhawks first-round pick has agreed to terms with the New York Rangers according to a release from the team.
The Rangers were one of several teams rumored to have heavy interest in Hayes soon after it became apparent that Hayes would not sign with Chicago. According to reports, the Boston Bruins, Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche were also believed to be heavily in the mix to land Hayes.
After declining to sign a deal with Chicago, Hayes was free to become an unrestricted free agent. Though a UFA, Hayes is still beholden to the NHL's entry-level system and could only be signed to the maximum under those guidelines which includes a bonus-laden contract with a base salary of $925,000 per season at the NHL level.
Hayes was a popular free agent due in part to the price and his history as a first-round draft pick, but he really became a strong candidate after he tore up college hockey in his final season. Hayes posted 65 points – second most in the nation – as a senior for Boston College, one of the best teams in the country in 2013-14. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Hayes also has a pro body and good physical strength that could help lead to a quicker transition to the NHL.
The Rangers, thanks to a tight salary cap situation, were in need of finding affordable players that could potentially slot into their opening-night lineup. With just over $1.3 million remaining in cap space for next season according to CapGeek.com, the Rangers should have no trouble fitting Hayes in if he makes the team out of camp. The burly winger will have to compete for ice time with several veterans and prospects for that spot, but due to his affordable cap hit, he very well could be suiting up for the Blueshirts right away.
It is unclear why Hayes spurned the Blackhawks, though multiple theories have been floated. A likely scenario is that the first-rounder didn't want to get buried in Chicago's deep system that includes a lot of NHL talent already on the Blackhawks and a line of prospects waiting to take the next available spot.
The Rangers' NHL roster doesn't have the log jam the Blackhawks do, especially after having to allow several players to walk in free agency to retain some of the younger restricted free agents. That didn't give the Rangers a lot of room to bring in high-quality free agents and leaves them with a roster a lot less potent than the one they just iced en route to the Stanley Cup Final.
Hayes reportedly heard from multiple teams over the weekend before narrowing down to four or five teams by Monday for more meetings with those finalists. It must have been an awfully tough decision for the coveted prospect as a decision was expected to come by Monday.
Reports from Mark Divver of the Providence Journal and Joe Haggerty of Comcast Sports New England had the Avalanche pegged as the favorites to acquire Hayes, but when no decision came Monday, it seemed as though the decision certainly seemed a little more open. Perhaps Hayes was swayed some by former BC teammate Chris Kreider, who just re-upped on a two-year deal with the Rangers.
Though Hayes will come with a fair amount of hype, it's important to understand the situation that has created his market.
The cheap entry-level contract is a big part of it, but it's not often a team can acquire a first-round caliber player that hasn't played in the NHL yet in this fashion. Unlike many of the college free agents that sign NHL deals, Hayes was actually drafted.
First and foremost, regardless of which team signed him, Hayes was going to bolster the prospect system of wherever he landed. The Rangers don't have a terribly deep prospect group to begin with due to a lack of first-round picks in the last two drafts. Adding Hayes definitely brings some increased depth.
While he may be able to slot into the NHL lineup immediately, and that likely was a big part of any negotiation over the weekend, Hayes at the very least helps bolster a team's depth chart. It is unlikely that Hayes will be able to be an impact player right away, so don't expect him to be patrolling the top six next season.
Additionally, Hayes is coming off a spectacular senior season in which he averaged 1.62 points per game, far and away his career best at BC. He averaged 0.93 points per game in 27 games during an injury-shortened junior campaign, so there were signs he was trending up offensively, but still the big jump from the rest of his career creates a little element of doubt in whether or not he'll be able to bring a high level of offense to the NHL. Was it just a hot year or did he suddenly put everything together? Quite frankly, either is possible.
What Hayes definitely offers, however, is potential. His size, his skill level and his track record all point to an NHL future for him, possibly even a successful one. It just may take some time to get there.
The Rangers made their organization better by signing Hayes, however, and did it affordably too. If Hayes can help a bit at the NHL level this year it's an added bonus, but even if it's just affording the Rangers a little bit better organizational depth in the short-term and the potential for something bigger down the line, it's a win for the club.