VOORHEES, N.J. — The Kevin Hayes contract was and will always be polarizing.
Especially in a market as passionate and demanding as Philadelphia.
When seven years and $50 million are doled out to a forward, the eyes automatically go to the columns that count goals and points. They will this season and for the next six. Hayes was aware of that reality when he signed with the Flyers in June.
“I think early on, obviously I signed that big deal and I wanted to come in here and have 82 goals and 82 assists,” Hayes said Tuesday, “but that’s just not how it works.”
Not with a player like Hayes. Wins can serve as a proper reminder of that, as can the less ostentatious statistics. General manager Chuck Fletcher made clear from the outset the Flyers would not judge Hayes purely by the center’s offensive production.
To start the 2019-20 season, Hayes felt the need to put up points — a tangible way to quickly justify his new deal and win over fans, to show why the Flyers were wise to sign him.
“I think at the beginning, with the media and the fans, when you sign that deal, you want to come in and be on everybody’s good graces right away,” Hayes said. “When you’re not putting up points, it’s easy to think you’re not playing great hockey.”
The Flyers’ staff noticed a difference in Hayes. Alain Vigneault, who coached him in New York from 2014-18, knows Hayes’ game well.
The coaches grabbed me after about six or seven games in and felt like I was putting too much pressure on myself, cheating the game a little bit offensively and kind of exposing myself out there. Since we’ve had that meeting, I’ve gotten back to playing the right way defensively, I think I’m playing good hockey. Obviously I haven’t been getting a ton of points, but I’m playing the right way.
It was kind of just, ‘Hey, we didn’t bring you in here to get 100 points this year.’ Points are great, but I think I was brought in to play a 200-foot game, to help the PK, help the PP when they needed help, to play the right way and be somewhat of a leader on the ice.
I still play a lot of minutes every night and, honestly, it’s the most fun I’ve had playing hockey in a while and I think a lot of it has to do with the team winning and everyone being so close.
Hayes has seven points (four goals, three assists) in 17 games. He has gone scoreless over the past seven games, but the Flyers are off to their best start since 2011-12 and Hayes has made an impact.
The Flyers entered the year with the NHL’s second-worst penalty kill since 2014-15 at 78.4 percent. This season, through the Flyers’ 10-5-2 start, the PK has ranked seventh at 85.4 percent. The Flyers are 8-2-1 since Oct. 21, a stretch in which the club has been the league’s third-best shorthanded team at 90.9 percent.
Hayes leads Flyers forwards in penalty kill ice time (31:01) but is eighth in power play ice time (22:33). Since Oct. 21, he has played just 2:55 on the man advantage, so Hayes’ point production must come at even strength. It’s why his PK work is so vital and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Do the Flyers need him to score? Of course — Hayes and his coaches know it, too. After all, the Flyers signed him for multiple reasons, not to only kill penalties.
“There’s still more there,” Vigneault said. “Hayesy, when he defends well, plays that 200-foot game, the offense comes with himself. Right now, I do think he’s pressing a little bit offensively, he’s putting pressure on himself. His best hockey this year, when he was fully committed … it was almost defense first, then offense. When he does that, he’s a real effective player.”
Inevitably, the offensive numbers will be placed under a microscope, examined and compared to the monetary figures on his contract.
However, don’t lose sight of what the Flyers needed to change. Seventeen games into the 2019-20 season, they are allowing fewer goals, are tied for the NHL’s sixth-best point percentage and haven’t even gotten close to Hayes’ best.
“I hold myself to a high standard where I think I should be contributing offensively, but that hasn’t come too much yet,” Hayes said. “I’m not really too concerned about it, it will come, I’ve been an offensive player my whole life.
“It hasn’t really crossed my mind. I know what I bring to the table and the biggest thing for me is the team stats. … I think it’s a lot different when your team is struggling, that’s when you kind of start caring about points, start proving, ‘Oh, I’m playing the right way because I’m getting my points.’ I don’t think that’s the case here.”
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