From the moment they revealed that Kevin Hayes was their primary free-agent target last offseason, from the instant they consummated that trade with the Winnipeg Jets for the exclusive right to negotiate with him, the Flyers were careful to frame their expectations for him in specific yet intangible terms.
Alain Vigneault had coached Hayes for four years with the Rangers, and Chuck Fletcher had been an NHL general manager long enough to know what kind of player Hayes had been and might yet be. The Flyers did not want or need him to score 40 goals, to pile up 80 points, to hit the numbers that signify stardom in this league. They wanted and needed him to kill penalties, to be as conscientious defensively as he was offensively, to play that off-roading-pickup-truck style that his 6-foot-5, 216-pound body allowed.
There’s no real benchmark for that kind of center. You know it when you watch it. So no pressure, Kevin. Just do your thing.
But to Hayes, another set of numbers already had begun to place pressure on him: seven years, $50 million, the contract to which he and the Flyers agreed in June. Sure, he’d scored more than 20 goals in a season just once, but $50 million is $50 million, and other people have expectations, too. So over his first 21 games with the Flyers, when he scored just four goals and had just eight points, he learned he had to stop measuring himself by a standard he never had to meet.
“At the beginning, when you’re making that much money and signed for that long, you don’t want the fans and media to think you’re an overpaid player,” Hayes said. “Stats are stats. I don’t think I was brought in here to get a hundred points, honestly, but when I first got here, I felt like I had to do that.
"But I don’t think that’s why Chuck and the coaches wanted me to come here. I do some other things that help the team. The bonus is scoring. I’m confident in my offensive game, that I’ll score in this league. I was pretty rattled in my early play, but I think as of late, it’s coming up.”
He could point to his four goals over his last seven games as evidence of that rise. Just Tuesday morning, in fact, during a team meeting, Vigneault had shown a replay of Hayes’ goal Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens.
“It started in our zone by him doing the right play, protecting the front of our net, and then going up the ice,” Vigneault said. “When he does that, he’s a real effective player.” But for a better gauge of Hayes’ improvement, his true value, just review the first two periods of the Flyers’ 6-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night.
He was the best player on the ice, by a significant margin. In the second period, he shed a check from Maple Leafs defenseman Justin Holl, carried Auston Matthews on his back as he surged to the front of the net, and set up Scott Laughton’s tap-in goal with a deft backhand pass.
In the first period, he single-handedly wasted 15-20 seconds of a Toronto power play with an unusual maneuver: While controlling the puck near the Maple Leafs’ blue line, he took off toward the other end of the rink as if he were leading a rush against his own team.
“Mostly, everyone just dumps it down,” Hayes said. “I’m sure those five guys thought I was probably just going to rim it in, and they can take advantage of that, especially skilled guys like that. A power play’s supposed to generate offense, and I know when I was on the power play, it [stinks] playing defense because all you want to do is get in the zone and set it up. As a penalty-kill guy, if you see the space, you take it.”
It was a strategy designed to dispirit the Leafs, to get Matthews and William Nylander and the rest of their young, flashy scorers sagging their shoulders. That the Flyers scored four goals in the game’s final 3 1/2 minutes spoke to Toronto’s collective effort over the full 60 minutes -- and Hayes’ role in breaking the Leafs’ will.
That, as much as his goal against Montreal or his assist on Laughton’s, is why the Flyers wanted and needed Hayes. They’re 16-7-5 now, with 37 points over 28 games, playing better earlier in a season than they have in years, and there was always going to be a telltale sign that their rebuild was nearing its end. That sign was this: They would win games without Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek having to be their best players every night.
And look here: Travis Konecny leads them in points. Oskar Lindblom leads them in goals. Sean Couturier leads their forwards in ice time. And Hayes has given them a bona fide second-line center, given them an edge and ruggedness they lacked.