Kevin Hayes is not one of the NHL’s three finalists for the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year.
The winner, as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, will come from the trio of Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (39 points), Ottawa Senators winger Mark Stone (64 points), and Hayes’ former Boston College teammate, winger Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames (64 points).
“I hope it’s Johnny,” a smiling Hayes said Thursday of Gaudreau, with whom he chats about an hour per day on his iPhone’s Facetime app.
All three Calder finalists were deserving of a vote, and so was Nashville winger Filip Forsberg, snubbed despite leading the Predators in scoring (63 points). So no one is saying Hayes warranted a clear-cut rookie of the year nod.
Still, consider: Compared to the other forwards, Hayes assumed a more challenging role as an everyday center and posted 45 points on the best team in hockey. He appeared in 79 of 82 games on a Rangers squad that won a franchise record 53 games, including 73 straight to conclude the season. He missed the first two games of the season with a shoulder injury, and he was a healthy scratch only once, on Oct. 27 at home against the Minnesota Wild.
Granted, Hayes was a 2010 first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks and a finalist last season as a Boston College senior for the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in NCAA hockey (captured by Gaudreau). His talent is no surprise. It’s the reason the Rangers wanted so badly to sign him as a free agent last summer.
What’s impressive is that Hayes, 22, consistently has improved since turning pro. The confident ex-Eagle hasn’t regressed or experienced the amount of peaks and valleys typical of a rookie thrown into the fire. Coach Alain Vigneault articulated that Wednesday when asked about the maturation of forward J.T. Miller, 22.
“Not a lot of guys like Kevin Hayes step in and usually stay for a whole season and continue to improve and contribute,” Vigneault said. “Usually there’s a learning curve in there, and you’ve got to go to the minors, work on your conditioning, and work on your skill.”
Hayes isn’t perfect. Like most rookie centers, he struggled on face-offs, winning 36.3 percent of his regular season draws. By his own admission he didn’t chip in enough early in the season.
But the point is his silence on the score sheet didn’t last. He kept getting better.
Kevin Hayes makes the back page of the April 23, 2015 edition of the Daily News.
“When I was around for my 50th game or so, I looked back and it was like I felt like I hadn’t even been on the team for the first 25 games or so,” Hayes, a 6-5, 225-pound immovable puck-carrier, said Thursday morning. “I don’t remember a single play I made the first 25 games. And I remember I didn’t want to make a mistake. I wanted the coaches to have faith in me.”
Hayes turned up his offensive mojo from the end of January on. After putting up six goals and 16 points in his first 43 games, he roared through the second half of the season, scoring 11 goals – several of them highlight-reel finishes – and posting 29 points in his final 36 matches.
In the Rangers’ first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Hayes again was a quick learner who adjusted immediately to early shortcomings. In the Blueshirts’ 4-3 loss in Game 2, he was exposed, on ice for both of Sidney Crosby’s goals in one of Hayes’ poorest performances in recent memory.
He responded by driving a dagger into the Penguins’ hearts with a Game 4-winning overtime goal at CONSOL Energy Center, his first career NHL playoff tally for a 3-1 Rangers series lead.
“Once I realized there was less room out there, and there wasn’t a lot of time and space, I knew to stop forcing every play,” Hayes said of his improvement following an ineffective early first round. “Like I had that one turnover to (Evgeni) Malkin (in the neutral zone), and the rest of series I knew if I was going to make a direct pass, I had to make it quickly, either as a saucer or a no-look.”
Hayes grants that playing four years in the high-profile Boston College program helped prepare him for such high-stakes situations, having won the 2012 NCAA Division-I national title. He also endured a freak, junior-year quadriceps injury that required four emergency surgeries, or else none of this would have been possible.
“We had three or four big games every year there, and not a lot of schools get to do that,” Hayes said. “My situation at B.C., though, was I was a player looked at to do things every game. I have a little different role here … And as great as college is, none of that comes close to an NHL playoff game.”
No one is comparing Hayes to his college best, though. They are now comparing him to his NHL peers. And even if he’s not on the rookie of the year list, he’s arguably as valuable to his team as any first-year player in the league.
“I couldn’t care less about being up for that,” Hayes said of the Calder Trophy, before adding: “In previous years guys with my numbers had a chance, but it’s O.K.”
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