The Rangers avoided arbitration with restricted free agent forward Kevin Hayes Monday by signing the 26-year-old to a one-year contract worth $5.125 million. The one-year deal means that Hayes will be an unrestricted free agent next summer.
With the club in a self-described rebuilding phase, the Rangers had to decide whether to make Hayes one of their building blocks and sign him to a long-term deal before his arbitration hearing, which had been scheduled for Thursday. That’s what they did with defenseman Brady Skjei, when they signed him Saturday to a six-year deal worth $31.5 million. With Hayes, however, general manager Jeff Gorton and the Rangers’ braintrust apparently did not want to make that kind of commitment to the 6-5, 217-pound center, who had a career-high 25 goals last season.
With Hayes signed only through the upcoming season, the odds are great the Rangers will look to deal him before the trade deadline. Otherwise, they risk losing him to free agency for nothing.
With Hayes signed, the club has only one remaining arbitration-eligible restricted free agent: forward Ryan Spooner. Spooner, who was acquired from the Boston Bruins the day before the trade deadline in the Rick Nash deal, has his arbitration hearing set for Saturday.
Hayes, a Dorchester, Massachusetts. native who was recruited to play college hockey at Boston University by current Rangers coach David Quinn, played his college hockey at Boston College and was originally drafted in the first round by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. But he never signed with the Blackhawks and the Rangers signed him as a free agent in 2014. He has played 310 career NHL games, scoring 73 goals, with 101 assists. Since joining the Rangers for the 2014-15 season, Hayes ranks third on the club in goals and points and fourth in assists. Last season, he was third on the team in scoring with 44 points.