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Under Pressure: Kevin Hayes

This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

It was not that long ago — less than two years, in fact — that Kevin Hayes received a scathing critique from his head coach, Alain Vigneault.

“In Kevin’s case, I think we made it clear our expectations about him and what we felt he could do were very high,” Vigneault said in December of 2015, per the New York Post. “Obviously, he hasn’t lived up to that. Did we overestimate his possibilities? I don’t know, time will tell. But I do know that what I’m seeing now, and what we’re seeing now, is not good enough.”

It has been quite a turnaround for Hayes ever since. Now 25 years old, he’s coming off a career-high 49 points in 2016-17. And after the trading of Derek Stepan to Arizona, he’s considered the top candidate to center the Rangers’ second line next season.

Oh, and did we mention this is a contract year for Hayes? He can become a restricted free agent next summer, and he’s already seen Mika Zibanejad get paid.

Now, it goes without saying that second-line center is a tough job in the NHL. Often, it’s used against the opposition’s top players, and it still comes with the responsibility to produce some offense.

So, is Hayes up to the challenge?

That’s a tough question to answer, because Hayes was already given a tougher defensive role last season, starting many of his shifts in the defensive zone while also facing quality competition.

But his possession numbers were worrisome, as you can see below:

After crunching the numbers, here’s what GothamSN writer Brandon Fitzpatrick concluded:

Basically, Hayes got tough minutes from Vigneault last season, and despite registering career-highs in assists and points, the underlying numbers weren’t favorable to him. Much of Hayes’ point totals can be attributed to Michael Grabner’s extraordinary 27 goal season where he shot a career-high 16.7%, well above his 12.7% career average.

There’s no doubt the Rangers want to see if Hayes can be a top-six center before committing to him long-term next summer, but if he’s not ready, the Rangers are going to suffer big time.

In addition to trading Stepan, the Rangers also lost Oscar Lindberg to Vegas in the expansion draft. And while they did sign veteran David Desharnais, the center position is going to be under a big microscope next season.

If Hayes is up for the job, it should go a long way towards making the Rangers a competitive team, while also helping him financially.

If not, all bets are off.

Related: Lias Andersson to get ‘every opportunity’ to make Rangers

NHL cracking down on slashing, faceoff violations to begin preseason

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The NHL has made it a point to crack down on slashing for the upcoming regular season. With the preseason underway, the foundation for the new standard is being set.

Dating back to late June, the NHL had vowed to call slashing more closely after a number of incidents last season, including Marc Methot‘s gruesome finger injury, which was the result of a slash to the hands from Sidney Crosby.

Monday’s game between the Islanders and Rangers featured nine slashing minor penalties. The Devils and Capitals were only 41 seconds into their preseason game Monday when Jimmy Hayes was called for slashing. A total of six slashing minors were called in that game — not to mention three faceoff violations.

From the Washington Post:

There’s been talk of being harder on slashing following several wrist, hand and finger injuries last season from dangerous stick work. “Now, as soon as your stick is off the ice and you touch the other players’ stick or hands, it was zero tolerance today,” Eller said. More surprising was the three faceoff violation penalties called in the first period of the game. That also represented a new emphasis from the league. “Cheating” on faceoffs has been commonplace, and for centers who’ve made their name winning faceoffs with a certain style and routine, staying perfectly within the red lines in the circle was an adjustment.

According to Mark Spector of Sportsnet, the Senators-Maple Leafs game Monday also featured three faceoff violations. It appears right now there will be quite an adjustment for players across the league to the apparent crackdown on slashing and faceoff violations, especially early on.

However, will this be the standard for the entire season? For the playoffs?

“I have a tough time believing that in the playoffs, in Game 7, that kind of call is going to be made,” Mark Letestu told Sportsnet. “Right now, there’s an overemphasis on it, and hopefully it doesn’t go all the way back to where it was.”

Video: No. 1 pick Hischier scores ‘tenacious’ goal in Devils preseason debut

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Nico Hischier, the first overall pick from this year’s NHL Draft, provided quite a glimpse into the type of player he can be for the New Jersey Devils during his first preseason game on Monday.

The Devils recorded a 4-1 victory over the Washington Capitals, with Hischier’s goal late in the third period putting it away. For Devils fans at Prudential Center, this should provide a little more optimism for a club that has looked to upgrade its offensive attack this offseason.

Hischier hounded Capitals forward Kevin Elgestal in the neutral zone, and eventually stole the puck while splitting two Washington players for the breakaway. In all alone, Hischier made no mistake, sliding the puck under the pad of goalie Vitek Vanecek.

“His skating was a factor. He was competitive on the puck,” said Devils coach John Hynes, per NJ.com.

“As the game went on, the second and third period, he started to make a few more plays, and I think he got adjusted to the time and space and battle level that was out there. You see the goal, he was really tenacious on the puck. He hunted it, had the second effort and a great stick to create the turnover. His work ethic put him in position for half a breakaway, and that’s when his skill takes over.”

While Nolan Patrick had for months been talked about as a potential No. 1 overall pick, Hischier put together an impressive year in the QMJHL and when the time came for the Devils to make their selection, they went with the 18-year-old Swiss center over Patrick.

It will be interesting to see exactly what role the Devils give Hischier this season, although the plan since the draft has been to give him every chance to make the NHL club right out of camp. Per NorthJersey.com, Hynes discussed the topic of Hischier in a potential top center role following Monday’s game.

“Certainly he has the skills and the hockey sense to play in that role but is he really ready for that?” said Hynes. “We’ll put him in a situation that will benefit him the most and the team the most.”

Video: Whoa, this is one sweet Mike Hoffman backhand goal

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Monday’s game won’t help the Ottawa Senators defy critics about last season running on luck, at least in that it doesn’t count in the standings.

Senators sniper Mike Hoffman didn’t seem to care.

Hoffman owned last night’s pre-season NHL highlight reel (sorry Nico Hischier), scoring two very different goals.

The best one can be viewed in the video above this post’s headline, as he burst through the Maple Leafs defense for a ridiculous backhander on the rush. Wow.

His first of the night was memorable for a different reason, as Hoffman shook off a near-miss (eventually) to score this goal.

Weird/cool/good, indeed.

Prediction: Hoffman will score a lot of goals that will “count” in 2017-18, too.

Wild extend captain Mikko Koivu’s contract for two years, $11M

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Minnesota Wild fans fearing that the 2017-18 season could be Mikko Koivu‘s last can breathe a sigh of relief, and that suspense didn’t even carry into opening night.

Instead, the Wild signed Koivu to a two-year contract extension worth $11 million.

That $5.5M cap hit kicks in during the 2018-19 campaign and ends after 2019-20. It represents a minor cut in pay for Koivu, as he’s entering the final year of a deal with a $6.75M cap hit.

Koivu, 34, enjoyed a strong first season under Bruce Boudreau, becoming a Selke finalist for the first time in his underrated career. He’s been Minnesota’s captain since 2008-09.

Koivu’s deal would qualify as a 35+ contract, according to Cap Friendly.

The Finnish forward likely valued stability, maybe taking a little less in AAV for the sake of peace of mind.

This continues a busy week-or-so for the Wild, who also broke their impasse with RFA Marcus Foligno by handing him a four-year, $11.5M deal.

Opinion: this Koivu deal is a much, much easier decision to justify, even taking into account his advanced age.