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Hartnett: Rangers' Hayes Is Flourishing At The Ripe Old Age Of 24

By Sean Hartnett
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Not even injuries can slow down the Rangers' Kevin Hayes.

After missing five games due to a lower body injury, the third-year center has recorded seven points, including five assists, over the past four contests.

Hayes has reunited with Michael Grabner and J.T. Miller and the line has produced 17 points. At just 24 years old and standing an imposing 6-foot-5, Hayes' influence was on full display during Monday's 3-2 road victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets, a win that ran the team's streak to six.

Hayes recorded a goal and an assist in 18:41 of ice time. He won six of 11 faceoffs, tied for the team high with four shots on goal and provided the primary assist on Dan Girardi's second-period shorthanded goal.

Hayes now leads the NHL with six shorthanded points and five shorthanded assists. He is the first Blueshirt to tally least five man-down assists in one season since legendary captain Mark Messier recorded six during the 1996-97 season. The Boston native is also the first Ranger to notch at least six shorthanded points in one season since Brandon Prust finished with seven back in 2010-11.

His third-period goal Monday was consistent with the kind of effort he has been supplying all season. Hayes was fast on the puck to force a turnover off David Savard's stick at center ice and then had the presence of mind to wait patiently for Sergei Bobrovsky to open his five hole.

The Rangers are now 26-2 this season in games Hayes has recorded a point and 13-0 when he has scored a goal. His 0.82 points per game is tied with Miller for the team lead.

Yet, the biggest leap in Hayes' game has come on the defensive end. Head coach Alain Vigneault is trusting him with 1:28 shorthanded minutes per game. That average is higher than alternate captain Derek Stepan, who has always served as a reliable penalty killer. Vigneault wants Hayes out there to take the tough defensive zone draws. And any time Hayes is on the kill, he's a threat to force turnovers and transition chances with his active stick.

"The big thing is that he's playing such a good 200-foot game," Miller said of Hayes earlier this season. "It has been coming with time. He came into the league with so much skill and poise. He really made it look easy. Now, he's learning how to play in his own end. He's a real threat in all three zones, as opposed to just one or two. He has gotten much better at winning faceoffs. The best is yet to come for him."

Hayes currently has 42 points through 51 games. The 215-pound center is only one assist, two goals and three points shy of matching career highs in each category. Since entering the league, 54 of his 77 assists have been primary assists, and 100 of his 123 points have been primary points.

What you're seeing is a player who had all the tools to become a dominant two-way center already develop into one at a very early stage of his career. Those who doubted Hayes' obvious potential because of the sophomore struggles he endured last season are looking pretty foolish right now.

Hayes is on track to have a very long career in this league and is showing night-in, night-out he will be a key contributor for the Rangers for years.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey

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