For Rangers forward Kevin Hayes, New York turning out to be a happy place

1:09 | NHL
NHL's Most Iconic Moments, No. 3: The Guarantee on Broadway
Thursday March 16th, 2017

Owing to the theatrical spirit of his adopted city, let it be known that Kevin Hayes actually keeps some decent comedic chops. Earlier this season, Delta approached the New York Rangers asking for someone to participate in one of the airline’s ads. And so the 24-year-old diehard Bostonian volunteered to transition onto Broadway. Or…something like that.

In the first spot of a campaign called “Find Your Center”—that’s his position, get it?—Hayes shuffles onto the Madison Square Garden rink while a serene soundtrack plays. Dressed in his No. 13 blueshirt, he reveals that working in the Big Apple hasn’t been too intimidating, so long as one locates their inner peace. Then he delivers the punch line, “I’m Kevin Hayes, and I really should’ve worn shoes for this.” The camera pans down to a foot rapidly turning as red as the center-ice line, and then back up to Hayes, who flashes a wide-eyed, what-the-hell kind of look. His actual bare feet in the frame? “No, no way,” he says. “I would not allow that.”

In the most recent commercial, he sits on the bench with a bib tucked into the collar of his jersey. “Think positive,” he tells the camera. “If you’re called for slashing, then icing, that’s slicing.” Notice the way Hayes then grabs some cheese pizza from a nearby box and curls the crust before snagging a bite? Until he signed with the Rangers as a college free agent and moved to New York City in Aug. 2014, Hayes had never lived anywhere but the greater Boston area. Clearly, he’s since learned the proper local way to fold a slice. In the Big Apple, this counts as cultural assimilation.

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“I feel a lot more comfortable playing-wise in this city than I did three years ago,” he says. “This city can be super positive, or it can be super negative on you. You’ve got to treat it the right way. So far, I think I’ve been doing a good job about it. I’m happy with where I’m at, happy with where my game is. New York is a place I never thought I’d call home.”

***

To further pillage Delta’s theme, Hayes has indeed Found His Center with the Rangers. He’s averaging 16:45 per game under coach Alain Vigneault, an increase of more than three minutes from his sophomore NHL season, and spends 1:28 on the penalty kill after logging only 115 total seconds shorthanded in ’15-16. And with an uncontested backdoor layup during Sunday’s second period at Detroit, Hayes also matched his career-high for goals (17) and set a new personal best in points (46)—in 14 fewer games.

Fittingly enough, the primary and secondary assists on Hayes’s milestone tally went, respectively, to his usual wingers, J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner. Together, they represent somewhat of a statistical outlier. Through Tuesday, 30 trios league-wide had spent 300 minutes together at 5-on-5, according to Corsica.hockey. Among those 30, the Grabner-Hayes-Miller line ranks second in goals-for rate (70.37%), yet dead last in shot attempt differential (45.57%). In other words, they outscore opponents at a whopping rate, using their collective speed to generate odd-man rushes on breakouts, even though underlying metrics might expect otherwise.

“Me and Kevin don’t shoot much,” Miller explains. “If we have a primary chance, we’ll shoot it. If not, we like to set something up. Our coach maybe doesn’t want to hear it. He likes it when we shoot pucks. [But we’re] looking for that play where it’s in the back of the net after. I think shot-wise, we’re waiting for that good opportunity, because we’re good at hanging onto it.

“We’ve changed the way to defensemen approach going against us. Nowadays everyone want so have a tight gap and be up in your face so we don’t have any room. I think with us pushing the speed back and elongating the game, I think it’s making teams back off.” The catch? “Unfortunately,” Miller says, “now teams are picking up on that, so the long bombs aren’t normally there.”

This assessment certainly jives with Hayes’ recent statistical dip—the goal against Detroit marked only his second in 13 games since mid-February—but pales in comparison to some of his struggles last season. After a rookie campaign that saw him finish seventh in Calder Trophy voting, Hayes recorded nine fewer points and sat as a healthy scratch during the Rangers’ first-round loss against Pittsburgh, the eventual Stanley Cup champions. 

“Definitely wasn’t as bad as people thought it was, and probably wasn’t as good as I thought it was,” Hayes says. “It was definitely an up-and-down season for me. I thought my rookie year went really well, and last year was below average.”

“No player likes to be chastised by the coaches, by management,” says Bob Murray, Hayes’s agent. “Kevin was realistic. He knew he was not playing quite as well as he was capable of, kept trying to work through it.”

The most significant improvements, though, were saved for summer. Soon after the Penguins bounced New York, Hayes met with Brian McDonough, his longtime trainer based in Foxborough, Mass., whose list of clientele includes other NHLers like Jack Eichel, Keith Yandle, Noah Hanifin, Kyle Palmieri and Brian Boyle, not to mention Hayes’s older brother, Bruins forward Jimmy Hayes. In Kevin, McDonough says he saw someone “pretty dissatisfied” and humbled by how his previous season had unfolded. “I’ll do anything you tell me,” McDonough recalls Hayes saying. “Anything you tell me to do, I’ll do. Any day you need me here, twice a day, I’ll be there.”

As the off-season unfolded, Hayes stayed true to his word. At McDonough’s suggestion, he went gluten-free. On weekend off-days, he instead reported to the gym for two-a-day sessions that featured boxing as a conditioning tool. “I’ve never seen him so inquisitive, from the meal-prepping to the nutrition to making sure he was timing things properly, fueling adequately before workouts, after workouts, and on the ice throughout the day,” McDonough says.

By training camp, armed with a two-year bridge contract extension worth $2.6 million annually, Hayes had dropped from 236 pounds to 215, shaved his body fat percentage from 14.6 to 8.8, and trimmed significant seconds off his laser-timed sprints. The result? A sleeker, more confident Hayes. “I think my game’s allowed me to be comfortable on the ice,” he says. “If I make a mistake, I know it’s not going to be that big of a deal with the coaches and stuff. The first two years I was a bit nervous to mess up. Now it’s coming with the game.”

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Says Bill Arnold, Hayes’s former roommate and teammate at Boston College, another local who also trained at McDonough’s gym: “He took that and ran with it. I give him a ton of credit. He wasn’t messing around at all.”

***

Of course, Arnold also knows his close friend’s other, goofier side. Every Christmas Eve, the Hayes family hosts an annual get-together at their Dorchester home. Without fail, the menu always features Chinese food and a simple, purely luck-based dice game called LCR. “It’s a lot of yelling at the table when that’s going on,” Arnold says. “There’s definitely no holding back. There are a lot of personalities in the room.”

“He’s got a good brand going for himself right now,” Miller says of his linemate. “Very sociable. He’s definitely the guy who’s got hookups everywhere, especially in Boston.”

So, whenever hockey ultimately ends, Hayes could always transition from the ice to the big screen, or even one of those dimly lit comedy clubs around Manhattan. Recently, for instance, a group of Rangers got so into binge-watching Game of Thrones that they nicknamed each other based on the characters. “[Rookie] Jimmy Vesey is Brienne of Tarth,” Hayes says. “Millsie is the Hound. [Forward Derek Stepan] is Samwell Tarly. All inside jokes.” For his part, Hayes says he owns the role of handsome, noble, northern-born Rob Stark.

Why, exactly? “Cause I’m a stud,” he cracks.

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