NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 14: Kevin Hayes #13...

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 14: Kevin Hayes #13 of the New York Rangers scores on the power-play at 17:26 of the first period against the Arizona Coyotes and is joined by Mats Zuccarello #36 at Madison Square Garden on December 14, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

Kevin Hayes, who left Friday’s game late in regulation after crashing into the boards, is expected to play Sunday when the Rangers host the Vegas Golden Knights in a 12:30 p.m. game at the Garden. The question is, will he be playing for the Rangers Feb. 27 when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning two days after the Feb. 25 trade deadline?

On January 1, and the Rangers can begin discussions with Hayes on a contract extension. What no one outside GM Jeff Gorton’s tight circle knows at the moment, is whether they actually want to sign the 26-year-old center to a long-term deal.

Even Hayes doesn’t have a clue what the Rangers will do.

“Everyone talks about the deadline and stuff, but I try not to think about it,’’ Hayes said last week. “I try to just play my game and whatever happens, happens. I’m not expecting anything to happen on January 1st. If it does, it’s between them and my agent. I’m not going to think too much about it.’’

Hayes (6-5, 216) signed a one-year, $5.175 million contract over the summer and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Hayes has arguably been the Rangers’ best forward this season, serving as the team’s No. 2 center (or, No. 1a, more like). He has been the team’s second-leading scorer (behind No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad) with eight goals and 23 points. But the Rangers are trying to get younger to position themselves to be a long-term Stanley Cup contender somewhere down the road. How far down the road does Gorton’s plan project that contender status to be? And does signing Hayes to a five- or six-year deal make sense under that timetable? If not, then they must trade him by the deadline.

Hayes said he believes he is having his best year as a professional.

“Oh yeah. I think so,’’ he said. “I think, just coming in, we kind of got rid of some important guys on this team, over the last two years, and it was time to step up. And I think I’ve been pretty good this year. I mean, I don’t have that many goals, but I’m getting a lot of good opportunities; I’m a big voice in the locker room; I try to lead by example; it’s been a lot of fun this year. We had low expectations [from the outside], and inside the locker room we had high expectations, and we’ve been doing pretty well. It’s fun to kind of, be the underdog. If you take it in stride, you can be pretty dangerous.

“I think the biggest step in my game was starting to think that I was a guy that, I had to be good every night for this team to be successful,’’ he said. “I think that’s the first time in my career that I’ve felt that way. In a good way – if you know what I mean. For the first time, I’m going into every game thinking, ‘If I don’t play well, I’m not going to give this team a good chance to win.’ ’’

What would it cost to sign Hayes long term? Former teammate J.T. Miller seems a reasonable comparable: Miller, 25, signed a $26.25 million contract (AAV $5.25 million) with the Lightning this summer. Miller, Tampa Bay’s third line center, had six goals, 19 assists, 25 points entering Saturday’s play.

It has been written before that what Hayes is providing – size, playmaking, and solid, two-way play – are things the Rangers are going to need when they are contending. Does it make sense to get rid of him now and hope that one of the young players the team is acquiring and developing can grow up give the Rangers what Hayes is already providing? Or should they just keep him?

Beleskey trying to stick in NHL

Enforcer Cody McLeod is likely going to be out another couple weeks with a broken hand, according to coach David Quinn. In the meantime, veteran Matt Beleskey is filling McLeod’s role and hoping to convince the team brass he deserves to stick around even after McLeod gets healthy.

“I’m looking to do anything I can to stay here,’’ Beleskey said. “The NHL’s definitely where I want to be, and I’ve worked hard to get back here.’’

Beleskey, acquired from Boston in the Nick Holden trade last season – the same one that also brought Nesconset native Rob O’Gara to the Rangers – was having a good preseason before a shoulder injury knocked him out of contention for a roster spot. When he got healthy, Beleskey was sent to AHL Hartford to play his way into shape, and McLeod’s injury has given him a chance to get another look at the NHL level. He’s scored one goal and had one fight in four games; McLeod had one goal and 42 penalty minutes in 16 games.

“You’re all on the same team, but I think everyone comes into camp hoping to improve, or move up in the lineup,’’ Beleskey said of his competition with McLeod for the enforcer role. “I want to see Cody McLeod have a good year; I want to see every left winger – Jimmy Vesey, whoever – you want to see them have a good year. But I want to have one as well. So, if it’s a healthy competition, we’re pushing each other, I think that’s good for a team.’’

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