This trade confirms Rangers’ real opinion of Kevin Hayes

This isn’t as much about the return the Rangers got from Winnipeg as it is about Kevin Hayes. Because once you accept the fact management never quite bought into No. 13 as a worthy and dependable enough core piece to award a five- or six-year contract extension at somewhere around $6-6.5 million per, then the first-rounder and bottom-six winger Brendan Lemieux acquired from the Jets by general manager Jeff Gorton is a reasonable rental return.

Of course, Hayes’ asking price for an extension went up as the season went on. The aforementioned numbers were right on the mark last offseason. When the Rangers checked in a couple of weeks ago, the number may have been as high as seven years at $7M per. It is unclear whether management countered, but by then it was too late, anyway. The course has been charted.

If the Blueshirts had believed in Hayes as part of the foundation, they would have gotten it done over the summer instead of signing the center to that one-year, walk-year $5.175M deal. If they believed Hayes would be the same player under a long-term deal as he had been for them on consecutive one-year contracts, they’d have engaged in talks immediately after Jan. 1. They did not.

Listen, we’re not talking about Jean Ratelle here. Nor Walter Tkaczuk. Objectively, if Kevin Hayes is your second-best player (behind Mika Zibanejad), you’re probably not contending for a championship. But the fact is Hayes remade himself into a consummate professional after his dud of a second season and emerged as a leader and a reliable two-way center who owned the puck for shifts at a time and who brought added dimensions to the power play and penalty kill.

Everyone knows about the aging curve and how a player’s peak years come earlier in a career than might have been anticipated. But Hayes, who will celebrate his next birthday during the second round of the playoffs, has been a better player this year at 26 than he was at 25, and at 25 he was light years ahead of where he was at 23. He is in much better physical condition. He is more committed to his profession.

The first-rounder obtained from Winnipeg likely will fall between 23rd and 31st overall. Chances are the player the Blueshirts select in that spot will never be as good as Hayes is now. The Rangers, of course, are not close to winning, so in that context planning for the future is not only prudent, it is mandatory. Thing is, the Blueshirts require a steady bridge in order to be able to cross from here to there, and they keep removing planks. Not being ready to win becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You may have read that in this space a few dozen times.

And this, too: The Rangers need to have some sort of foundation in place in order to lure free agents. They might have oodles of cap space with which to work entering the summer, but no one comes running to play for a bad team in a high tax state.

There was much talk, both last summer and at the start of the year, about how the Rangers could not keep both Zibanejad and Hayes because the team needed to clear spots in the middle for Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson. I take the other view, that the two centers were linchpins around whom the Rangers could reload. But the door is open now for the kids.

It is the door that Hayes was sent through on his way to Winnipeg for a return that is decent if you didn’t believe in the center as a core piece. Which the Rangers quite obviously never did.

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