Hayes Embracing Larger Role With Rangers

Kevin Hayes’ game changed on June 23.

He always had the size and last season he added more speed. And he’s got tremendous hands, offensive skills and instincts. That much was obvious.

But on June 23, more responsibility – especially in the defensive zone – was heaped on the center’s still young (25) shoulders. That was the day the Rangers traded No. 1 center Derek Stepan, a guy who played all three zones and all situations as a Ranger.

Hayes didn’t need to hear from coach Alain Vigneault, or from anybody, that there was not only a challenge but an opportunity. And he embraced it.

“When Step got traded, there was obviously a top-two center spot to be (filled),” Hayes said after practice on Monday as the Rangers prepped for what could be a telling two-game trip through Chicago (Wednesday) and Columbus (Friday).

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“For me, I think I’m playing a lot more defensive-zone (starts) than I did in the past three years. It’s a challenge. You don’t want to be on the ice when the other team is scoring goals. I challenged myself this summer. I knew that was going to be the situation. It’s not always fun, going out there in the d-zone, taking faceoffs, but it has to be done. I just take it as a challenge.”

Hayes’ acceptance of that challenge and his ability to excel in that role was never more apparent than Saturday, when he went head-to-head with Edmonton’s reigning Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid.

Hayes played a whopping 18:28 – all but 10 seconds of that at even strength or on the penalty kill – masterfully set up one of linemate Rick Nash’s two goals, won 58 percent of his faceoffs and, most importantly, shut down McDavid, who scored a power-play goal but didn’t have another shot on goal in the 4-2 Rangers win.

Oh yeah, that was the Rangers’ sixth win in a row, all of which coincide with the creation of the Nash-Hayes-Mats Zuccarello line, which was on the ice in the final minute with Edmonton’s net empty for an extra skater.

“That’s kind of what Step did, going against the other team’s top lines,” Hayes said. “Yeah, I knew somebody had to do it. I think I can still provide offense here. I’ve just got to be smarter offensively.”

He’s certainly had chances – many of them in transition – and created chances for teammates. Offense comes from defense.

“For sure it’s a cliché statement, but if you play well defensively you should get your chances, especially when you’re playing against elite players who maybe like to be in the offensive zone more than the defensive zone,” Hayes said.

“You’ve got to limit the risks that you take. Last year when I was playing with (J.T. Miller), we would cheat a little bit offensively. You can’t do that when you’re being depended upon defensively. So far this year, I think I’ve been more of a defensive center. I kind of like it.”

His teammates and coaches like it too.

“Like our team, it took him a little while here to, I would say, adjust and adapt,” Vigneault said. “Last game, I would say 80 percent of the night, he went up against McDavid. They (Hayes, Zuccarello, Nash) did a really good job. Not only did they limit that line 5-on-5 in scoring opportunities, but they also generated quite a few. He had a couple, Nasher had a couple, Zucc had a couple. So I think, that combined with the PK – the important minutes that he’s having there – I think he’s coming along.

“He’s just got to continue to be hard on puck battles, maybe move the puck a little bit quicker, obviously use his size and his skill level. But I think he’s coming along. He’s progressing and improving, and that’s what we need from him.”

Like most of the Rangers’ young forwards, Hayes is tutored by Nash, the Rangers’ best two-way forward and penalty killer.

“He’s been against other teams’ top lines and the faster you can figure out your two-way game, the more you’re going to play heavy minutes in this league and the longer your career is going to be,” Nash said.

“If he wants to be a No. 1 center, he has to play both ends of the rink and that’s what he’s been doing. You look, we played against guys like McDavid and other top lines and he’s been great in that aspect.”

Next up: The Blackhawks and Jonathan Toews.

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