The last few weeks I’ve spent some time reviewing bottom six options to improve the depth on the Buffalo Sabres roster. In fact, one of the previously mentioned ideas came off the board over the weekend. Jordan Weal signed a new two-year contract to remain with the Montreal Canadiens.
This week we’re going to change it up and look at a top-six forward option, at a position the Sabres are in desperate need of improvement. After trading Ryan O’Reilly and Casey Mittelstadt not being ready to step in as a second line center, they need an upgrade at that position. It appears a few may be available this summer via trade or unrestricted free agency.
That leads us to this week’s free agent target, Kevin Hayes.
The 26-year-old center is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. He had a great season with the New York Rangers and then continued to play well after being dealt to the Winnipeg Jets at the trade deadline.
The former first-round pick is a big (6’5”) forward, that has some skill, plays a solid two-way game, and can play in a variety of situations for his team. There’s nothing particularly in Hayes game that you can say he’s “great” at. However, there’s a lot of different things he’s “good” at, which speaks to his versatility. It also means that if one area of his game falls off over time, he has the ability to be impactful on the roster in other areas.
Speed isn’t what Hayes is known for, but it also doesn’t look like he’s skating in cement on the ice. Hayes has a good hockey IQ. Like Sam Reinhart, he puts himself in the right positions with his ability to read the play as it’s happening. He’s good around the front of the net using his size and can finish in close on the goaltender. The shot map below from Sean Tierney paints the picture of where most of his shots come from.
It’s not always pretty, but Hayes generates scoring opportunities when he’s on the ice. He was fourth on the Rangers in individual expected goals per 60 and then finished second on the Jets roster in that same category.
Moving beyond the offense Hayes was impactful at both ends of the ice this season. Using Evolving Hockey’s RAPM model he ranked 28th among all forwards at 5 on 5 with an expected goals plus-minus per 60 rating of 0.243. As I already mentioned he did a good job generating offense, but also was good at suppressing the opponent defensively.
Both his RAPM data and isolated impacts over the last few years from Micah McCurdy showcase how Hayes is a good fit as a two-way center for the Sabres. He’ll be an improvement at 5 on 5 and even contribute as a good special teams player.
The other part of Hayes game that is underrated is his ability to transition the puck effectively from defense to offense. Looking at CJ Turtoro’s A3Z tool that uses tracking data from Corey Sznajder, you can see how good he’s been over the last few seasons.
Only two forwards currently on the team are good transitional players with the puck on their stick in Jack Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt. Hayes would be a third player that can carry the puck into the zone with possession and begin to set up the offense.
There are some areas of caution with Hayes, but nothing that should scare the Sabres away from exploring him as an option this summer. A player scoring a career-high point total like he did this season in a contract year could be a red flag depending on how drastic the numbers vary. This is the first time in his career that he’s reached the 50-point mark previously peaking at 44 and 49 points in each of the last two seasons.
One reason for that change could be credited to the coaching change with the Rangers. Alain Vigneault used Hayes in more defensive zone start situations while behind the bench in New York. New head coach David Quinn gave Hayes some opportunity offensively at 5 on 5 and he was rewarded for it.
The only other thing that could cause some hesitation is what a contract in July would like for Hayes. Evolving Hockey’s contract projection has him listed at eight years and a cap hit of $8 million.
Personally, I believe that’s on the high end and only likely if the market gets out of hand. I look at Paul Stastny’s contract last season with the Vegas Golden Knights as a benchmark. He signed a three-year deal with an average annual value of $6.5 million at 32-years-old.
Both Hayes and Stastny have similar career numbers. Stastny has averaged more points per 82 games over the last few years. With NHL year to year inflation that’ll likely be the neighborhood that Hayes camp will have a desire to end up regardless. He’ll be 27-years-old come July and will probably get longer than a three-year contract. The sweet spot is around five years in term on that contract. We don’t see teams hand out too many max term contracts in anymore in free agency.
So, a deal around five-years at an AAV of $6.5 to $7 million makes sense for Hayes. While he’s a good fit for what the Sabres need in a hybrid second/third line center; getting into a contract above the numbers I just mentioned could carry some higher risk.
Hayes could step in and allow the Sabres to shelter Casey Mittelstadt in a third line role until he’s ready to take on more responsibility in a year or two. When the time comes, Hayes can then easily transition to a solid third line center on what hopefully will be a deep playoff roster.