When the Philadelphia Flyers started last offseason by trading for (the rights to) Kevin Hayes, many weren’t sure what to think. He had an up-and-down stretch with the New York Rangers before being traded as a rental to the Winnipeg Jets. He was headed into free agency as one of the few worthwhile forwards in the FA class.
Chuck Fletcher traded for Kevin Hayes’ rights in early June, signaling to everyone — the fans, the rest of the league, hell, even Hayes himself — that this was the free-agent center he was targeting. He wasn’t the flashiest of names with Matt Duchene and Joe Pavelski slated to become free agents as well, nor was he the high-scoring Artemi Panarin, who signed a massive deal with the New York Rangers.
Hayes wasn’t at the top of many people’s lists heading into free agency, for both the Flyers and the NHL as a whole. The former Ranger-turned Jet struggled to acclimate to Winnipeg after a deadline deal and was set to hit the free-agent market. Then Fletcher struck.
Hayes was brought in to be the 2A to Nolan Patrick’s 2B for the Flyers behind top-line center Sean Couturier. That would give the Flyers great depth down the middle with the breakout star Couturier, two-way stud Hayes, and up-and-coming Patrick. Unfortunately, Patrick has been dealing with migraines and has not seen any action this season. But Hayes has filled in nicely nonetheless.
It didn’t take long for Hayes to ingratiate himself with the Flyers fans, as he scored a power-play goal in the home opener against the New Jersey Devils en route to a 4-0 win. He was then held off the scoresheet for four games before putting together a three-game goal streak that was capped off with a go-ahead shorthanded goal in a big comeback win against the Columbus Blue Jackets. He had an assist the next night in a blowout loss before another cold stretch, going 10 games without a point.
Hayes was thrown into a tough position due to the Flyers’ injuries and line shuffling in the early portion of the season. He was tasked with being the reliable, two-way presence down the middle, not too unlike Sean Couturier was early in his career. He was placed with a rotation of linemates and held his own in a checking role. And then he broke out.
In fact, Hayes has been on a hot stretch for over a month now. Since Nov. 19 against the Panthers, Hayes has 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) in 20 games. He had just seven points (four goals, three assists) in his first 20 games.
The most impressive thing about those numbers is that he has done most of his damage at even strength, with seven of his goals and eight of his assists coming at even strength. He put an exclamation point on that streak with the overtime winner on Saturday night against the Anaheim Ducks.
Hayes has found immense success with James van Riemsdyk, whose hot streak has coincided with Hayes’. Since Dec. 7 Hayes has assisted on a JVR goal twice, JVR has assisted on a Hayes goal twice, and the two have both had assists on two goals.
The do-it-all center has lived up to the hype in doing it all for the Flyers so far this season. He is one of the team’s most reliable penalty killers, coming up just six seconds shy of Couturier’s team-leading 80 minutes and 37 seconds shorthanded. He has given the Flyers a weapon on the PK with his team-leading seven scoring chances (five high-danger) and 0.94 expected goals.
Hayes hasn’t completely changed the Flyers — he wasn’t meant to single-handedly anyway — but he has given them a piece to grow around and he is turning into a great free-agent signing.
The 2019 free-agent class only had a select few forwards that would be worth signing for any team, let alone a team like the Flyers. The Flyers were looking to add a top-six forward while shoring up their defense. Fletcher did that in trading for — and signing — Hayes, without having to overpay.
Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene clocked in at $11.6 million and $8 million cap hits respectively, while Hayes was a modest $7.1 million. Some may say that’s an overpay for Hayes, but teams usually have to “overpay” in one way or another to get good players, and overpaying by less than $1 million using your cap space is a small price compared to potentially dealing away a top prospect or pick in a trade.
Panarin has kept up his high-scoring ways with the Rangers, to the tune of 22 goals and 35 assists in 39 games, but it would’ve been a longshot for the Flyers to sign him to such an expensive deal. He isn’t a center and doesn’t play on the penalty kill anyway, which are two qualities that Hayes brings to the table.
Duchene seemed set on going to Nashville, but even he isn’t having a huge year compared to Hayes. He has three fewer goals (but eight more assists) for the Predators this season while carrying a higher cap hit. The forward has also played on the wing some in Nashville and doesn’t provide much defensive value.
Those were the two big fish on the market, with Hayes and a few others at the next tier. Joe Pavelski was the only other center around Hayes’ level to hit free agency. While his age doesn’t make for a perfect comparison, he also got $7 million (for three years) from the Dallas Stars.
Pavelski has just 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) while playing in a top-six role for the Stars. Like Duchene, he also has shifted to the wing at times. Given the choice between Hayes and Pavelski, almost everyone would agree to take Hayes.
Not only has Hayes been a huge addition on the ice, but he has also become a great locker room presence as well. He has quickly become a fan favorite due to his mic’d up segments and postgame speeches (or reactions to them) and he is a veteran leader for the rookies on the club.
Hayes is on pace for 47 points, which would be slightly above his career average of 45 points per 82 games. However, if he continues to find success as he has in the past month, he’ll have a chance to match or surpass his career-high of 55 points.
Adding Hayes has allowed the Flyers to use their young, up-and-coming pieces to fill in the gaps in the lineup and he has been a great addition to the orange and black.