VOORHEES, N.J. — Kevin Hayes scored a career-high 25 goals at 25 years old during the 2017-18 season with the Rangers.
As a restricted free agent in the summer that followed, Hayes signed a one-year, $5.175 million deal with New York. He played only 51 more games for the Rangers before being traded to the Jets last season in February.
Seven months later, he has a seven-year, $50 million contract. On Saturday morning, he was wearing an orange sweatshirt with the No. 13 on it and standing in the Flyers' dressing room at Skate Zone.
Times have seriously changed for Hayes following that trade.
"Obviously you get comfortable with where you're at but it's a business. It's something I thought could have happened by signing a one-year deal that year," Hayes said. "I'm very happy with where I'm at and what I have at the moment. Looking back a year ago from today, I was asking for things from New York that they said no to and we went our separate ways in February.
"I'm ecstatic with where I'm at right now, playing with this group of guys. The players that we have here, the goalies, the Ds and the forwards who I'll be playing with are elite and it's something that I'm excited for — and tonight's just one step toward the regular season. I'm sure there will be mistakes out there but I'm happy with what side I'm on."
Although it's just the preseason, tonight will be the first time Hayes has played against the Rangers since the trade. New York put its rebuild into overdrive this summer by acquiring Jacob Trouba and Artemi Panarin, and drafting Kaapo Kakko.
Is it tough for Hayes not seeing the rebuild through after watching the steps the Rangers made this offseason?
I don't know if they're good steps or bad steps, that's what you guys get to decide, but they're steps I guess. I have no hard feelings toward them. I loved my time there, I'm happy with where I'm at right now. I feel like this year is the best shape and best mentality I've ever been in in my career. I don't know if it has to do with the change or the excitement I have to be here in Philly, but I'm excited to get this going.
Three of the Rangers' top six scorers are gone from last season, including Hayes and Jimmy Vesey, who was traded to the Sabres on July 1.
"They chose to get rid of me and Vese, but that's their decision," Hayes said. "I'm sure it'll come back to them, we'll find out."
Hayes is back with Alain Vigneault, who coached the 27-year-old from 2014-18 in New York. Vigneault was a major selling point for Hayes signing with the Flyers on June 19 after the club acquired his rights earlier in the month.
Hayes was a plus-30 under Vigneault and his minutes climbed each season. The 6-foot-5 center is now one of the better penalty-killers in the league and a two-way guy poised for his biggest offensive role yet.
"I had a great relationship with him in New York for the four years we were together," Hayes said. "He turned me into a 200-foot player and I think that was — if not the biggest reason — one of the biggest reasons why I decided to come here.
"There was some tough love there, for sure. It's the NHL. It's not easy for everyone. … It's growing pains. I thought the way he handled my situation and how I responded was very professional and I think I entered the league as an offensive guy and A.V. kind of turned me into a 200-foot player and an NHL guy.
"At the time, I don't know if I was super excited about it — fast-forward six years and I couldn't be more happy with where my game is at."
The Flyers play the Rangers four times in 2019-20. The first trip to Madison Square Garden is on March 1. From his rookie year in 2014-15 to now, the New York roster is very different.
"I have friendships there outside of the hockey players — equipment guys, media guys, trainers that basically shaped me as the person I am today," Hayes said. "I think it will be more emotional seeing those guys — I don't even know half the team anymore to be honest.
"I'm sure going back to MSG will bring back some memories and be a little bit emotional. I'm not even just saying this just because I have to, I couldn't be more excited to be here in Philly, to start a new chapter in my NHL career where I have the security to be somewhere for a long term. In New York, my longest contract was two years, the last three years it was trade bait basically every year. I'm happy with where I'm at it, physically and mentally, and getting excited again to play hockey."
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