Too soon for Jets’ centre Hayes to ponder future

Life has been good for Kevin Hayes of late.

The 26-year-old centre, acquired by the Winnipeg Jets from the New York Rangers at the NHL’s trade deadline last month, has had a seemingly easy transition to his new team. Hayes has 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 14 games with the Jets, giving him the most of any player who swapped teams on deadline day.

His recent success is just one reason Hayes prefers not to talk about the future. He also made a promise to himself shortly after signing a prove-your-worth, one-year deal with the Rangers worth US$5.175 million that narrowly avoided arbitration last July. He promised not to talk about a new contract until July, which, if he does hold out until then, will either mean inking a last-minute extension with Winnipeg or becoming an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

“That whole contract stuff, I signed a one-year deal this summer and I told everyone I’m not going to talk about it or come around to it until July. I’m focusing on one goal here and that’s to win,” Hayes told the Free Press on Monday, ahead of a Central Division tilt with the Dallas Stars.

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Winnipeg Jets' Kevin Hayes (12) takes a face off against the Dallas Stars' during second period NHL hockey action in Winnipeg, Monday, March 25, 2019. Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press

Winnipeg Jets’ Kevin Hayes (12) takes a face off against the Dallas Stars’ during second period NHL hockey action in Winnipeg, Monday, March 25, 2019. Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press

Life has been good for Kevin Hayes of late.

The 26-year-old centre, acquired by the Winnipeg Jets from the New York Rangers at the NHL’s trade deadline last month, has had a seemingly easy transition to his new team. Hayes has 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 14 games with the Jets, giving him the most of any player who swapped teams on deadline day.

Vegas Golden Knights center Brandon Pirri (73) checks Winnipeg Jets right wing Kevin Hayes into the boards during the first period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Las Vegas. John Locher / The Associated Press files

Vegas Golden Knights center Brandon Pirri (73) checks Winnipeg Jets right wing Kevin Hayes into the boards during the first period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Las Vegas. John Locher / The Associated Press files

His recent success is just one reason Hayes prefers not to talk about the future. He also made a promise to himself shortly after signing a prove-your-worth, one-year deal with the Rangers worth US$5.175 million that narrowly avoided arbitration last July. He promised not to talk about a new contract until July, which, if he does hold out until then, will either mean inking a last-minute extension with Winnipeg or becoming an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

“That whole contract stuff, I signed a one-year deal this summer and I told everyone I’m not going to talk about it or come around to it until July. I’m focusing on one goal here and that’s to win,” Hayes told the Free Press on Monday, ahead of a Central Division tilt with the Dallas Stars.

It’s safe to assume the Jets are also willing to play the slow game. With a number of players requiring a new deal for next season — including forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor and defenceman Jacob Trouba, all pending restricted free agents — some careful accounting will be required in order to ink a deal with Hayes.

For now, Hayes is just fine with where he is, centring a newly formed trio that includes Connor and Laine on his wings. The line combined for four goals and nine points in a spirited win over the Nashville Predators on home ice Saturday. Hayes scored once and assisted on all three of Connor’s goals for a four-point night in a much-needed victory over a Predators team chasing the Jets in the Central Division standings.

“It’s easy to say it clicked because we scored four goals, but we just stuck to the game plan,” Hayes said. “K.C. obviously had a great night and it’s just hard work. If you play within the right structure, you’re going to reward yourself.”

Against Dallas, Hayes set up Connor for the Jets’ first goal in a 5-2 loss to the Stars. The line was an even plus-minus, and combined for six shots. Laine added the second goal on the power play, converting a one-timer off a Trouba pass. Connor was credited with the second assist.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice played coy when asked about his reasoning behind forming the new line, saying it was one of the few combinations he had yet to see this year.

Winnipeg Jets' Kevin Hayes (12) looks to shoot while Carolina Hurricanes' Justin Williams defends during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, March 8, 2019. Gerry Broome / The Associated Press

Winnipeg Jets’ Kevin Hayes (12) looks to shoot while Carolina Hurricanes’ Justin Williams defends during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, March 8, 2019. Gerry Broome / The Associated Press

“Kyle Connor and Patty on the right (wing) had played together and also had some extreme success with Bryan (Little) there — five goals in St. Louis — but had those big nights,” Maurice said. “So the only question was how Kevin was going to interact with them — but you’re going to ask that question wherever you put Kevin (in) because he’s new to our group. And he’s a left-handed shot, which changes some things, so we’re happy about it. It’s one (game). We know they’re capable of, we think, some really good things.”

Hayes started his tenure with Winnipeg playing between Nikolaj Ehlers and Mathieu Perreault. Then it was between Ehlers and Connor, another combination with mixed results, as Laine was moved up to the top line with Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. Meanwhile, Hayes chipped in on special teams, playing both the power play and penalty kill.

When Hayes first spoke to media after the trade from New York, he wasn’t able to get into details on who his linemates might be or where he was expected to factor in on the depth chart. After all, Little was the team’s No. 2 centre, though it was clear the Jets were looking for someone else to fill that role, much like they did last season when they brought in Paul Stastny via a trade with the St. Louis Blues. Stastny, who, like Hayes, was on an expiring contract, tested free agency before signing a three-year, US$19.5-million deal with the Las Vegas Golden Knights — the team that eliminated the Jets in the Western Conference final.

Hayes said Monday that once he arrived for his first day at the rink, Maurice brought him into his office and offered a clear vision of where he wanted him to be.

“I came here and I just met with Paul right away, as soon as I got to the rink, and he was like, ‘You’re going to be our second-line centre here,’” Hayes said.

Winnipeg Jets' Kevin Hayes (12) skates during warm up to NHL action against the Minnesota Wild in Winnipeg on Tuesday, February 26, 2019. John Woods / Winnipeg Free press files

Winnipeg Jets’ Kevin Hayes (12) skates during warm up to NHL action against the Minnesota Wild in Winnipeg on Tuesday, February 26, 2019. John Woods / Winnipeg Free press files

Reading between the lines, it becomes clear that the Jets were hoping to find chemistry between Hayes and Laine, their elite scorer who has battled scoring slumps for much of this season (he snapped a 13-game scoring drought Monday). Those weren’t the expectations delivered to Hayes, who admitted that playing in the Eastern Conference has limited the amount of time he’s watched the Jets. He said he wasn’t even aware that Stastny had come in for that exact assignment, as the second-line centre.

“I’ve loved the time that I’ve been here. It’s been short but it’s been great. They have good players in this room and no matter who you’re playing with, you’re going to be playing with someone who is pretty elite,” Hayes said.

Though Hayes isn’t willing to talk about a future with the Jets beyond this season, he has enjoyed his time in Winnipeg. Having spent almost his entire five-year NHL career in the Big Apple, it shouldn’t be dismissed that Hayes, a native of Dorchester, Mass., appears to have a certain respect playing in the hockey hotbed that is the Canadian Prairies.

“New York City is a pretty aggressive city that has things to offer pretty much every day and it’s kind of nice coming to a place like Winnipeg and being 100 per cent focused on hockey,” Hayes said.

He added: “It’s been a little different, but I came here for one reason and that’s to win. I don’t really care socially about what’s going on. We have a good chance with a good team and it should be a special run.”

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Winnipeg Jets' Kevin Hayes (12) skates during warm up to NHL action against the Minnesota Wild in Winnipeg on Tuesday, February 26, 2019. John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files

Winnipeg Jets’ Kevin Hayes (12) skates during warm up to NHL action against the Minnesota Wild in Winnipeg on Tuesday, February 26, 2019. John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files

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Jeff Hamilton
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