Playing hockey this season was supposed to be an outlet for Flyers center Kevin Hayes, who said he would use the memory of his late brother, Jimmy, to push himself whenever he was on the ice.
Jimmy Hayes, a former NHL player who shockingly died Aug. 23 at age 31, would have wanted as much.
Injuries and COVID-19, however, have gotten in the way during most of Kevin’s season and have made it difficult for him to find a rhythm. But Hayes, 29, has returned — cleared from COVID protocol Tuesday — and will be in the lineup Wednesday in Seattle. In the short-term, he will assume some of the defensive duties performed by Sean Couturier, who remains on the COVID protocol list.
Filling Couturier’s role
“Kevin is such an important part of our team,” interim coach Mike Yeo said after practice Tuesday in Voorhees. “Obviously we have Coots coming out, and the matchups that Coots has night in and night out … we believe Kevin can fill that spot. With his size, with his ability to control the puck, and also to make plays and the reads defensively, that’s what I see when I see Kevin playing his best game.”
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Hayes didn’t debut this season until Nov. 13 in Dallas because he was rehabbing from a second abdominal surgery. But after two games, he aggravated the injury and sat out six more games, followed by a positive COVID test during the holiday break. It figures to take him at least a few games to get his conditioning back.
In all, he has played in just 11 of 29 games and has struggled to regain the form that produced 23 goals in 69 games during the COVID-abbreviated 2019-20 season, his first year with the Flyers.
Hayes has six points, including two goals, and a minus-6 rating this season.
Clearly, if the up-and-down Flyers are going to make a playoff run over the final 53 games (COVID permitting), they need Hayes to be his old self.
“He’s huge for us at every position — obviously centerman, but on special teams,” said Flyers right winger Cam Atkinson, who was also Hayes’ teammate at Boston College. “He drives the play with the puck and just making small plays. We’re going to need him a lot, especially on this road trip.”
At Tuesday’s practice, Hayes centered Joel Farabee and Travis Konecny on a line. Morgan Frost also came off the COVID list Tuesday, and he was the third-line center between James van Riemsdyk and Gerry Mayhew, his former Phantoms linemate.
Like Hayes, Frost’s season has been interrupted by injuries and illnesses. Both said they had mild cases of COVID-19, and both will be in the lineup Wednesday.
“My COVID battle wasn’t too bad. I know it’s a serious thing, obviously,” Hayes said. “I had no symptoms at all. I was shocked I tested positive, but I did, and I felt pretty good on the ice today.”
With Hayes and Frost back, the Flyers look a lot more formidable down the middle as they begin a four-game West Coast trip. The centers are now Claude Giroux, Hayes, Frost, and Patrick Brown. That’s a lot better than it looked in practice Monday, when the centers were, in order, Giroux, Brown, Mayhew, and Nick Seeler, a defenseman.
Plugging the gaps
While the Flyers will need players like Hayes and Frost to help plug some gaps in the lineup, there is a big hole in their most important position, goaltender, where backup Martin Jones needs to step up with Carter Hart on the COVID protocol list.
After losing 10 straight, the Flyers will take a five-game point streak (4-0-1) into Seattle.
“Every game is important to get two points, but when you go through a losing streak like we did, every game becomes [more] important,” Hayes said. “We’ve been able to battle back in these last five here, and had a pretty good groove going. The guys are really excited to get back on the ice and keep trending toward the right way.”
The Flyers will be without several key players for all or most of their four-game trip, including Hart, Couturier, Derick Brassard, Scott Laughton, and Ryan Ellis.
“The positive side of it is pretty easy for me and some of the guys on the team,” Hayes said. “Always stay upbeat and positive. … It’s exciting to get new guys and new energy in the room, and the guys who have been here all year [need to] keep doing their thing.”
And hope that Hayes, who through no fault of his own, hasn’t been here all year, starts doing his thing, too.