By Sean Hartnett
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Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller are no longer young pups. Their progression will have a considerable influence on how the Rangers perform next season.
When the Rangers went their separate ways on breakup day, head coach Alain Vigneault communicated his confidence in the trio’s development.
“The evolution for me — whether it be Kreider, Hayes, J.T. Miller — there were a lot of things that can be pointed out that we are making strides in the right direction,” Vigneault said.
Yet their combined 10 points in 12 games last playoffs – an average of 3.3 per player – wasn’t a strong enough showing. It’s easy to be alarmed by a small sample size of 12 playoff games or be fooled by recency bias.
Here’s the big picture: Kreider’s points per game jumped from 0.54 to 0.71 last season, Miller’s leapt from 0.52 to 0.68, and Hayes’ increased from 0.46 to 0.64.
Still, there’s another level that can be reached. Kreider, 26; Hayes, 25; and Miller, 24, are at the point in their development where they should be able to make the transition from growing pieces within Vigneault’s puzzle to the lifeblood that fuels this team.
What the Rangers need is for Kreider, Hayes and Miller to be irreplaceable in the way that leading forward Mats Zuccarello is. You know what you get from Zuccarello every night – dominant play on both ends of the ice, quickness in acquiring the puck, and a steady stream of goals and assists.
Consistency has long been the issue that’s dogged Kreider. When he’s hot, he’s near uncontainable. When he’s cold, he’s pedestrian. His off-the-charts speed, herculean strength and rapid release should be adding up to more. Kreider has three years remaining on his contract at an annual-average value of $4.625 million.
“The Chris Kreider we saw in the third period of Game 6, boy, I would have liked to see him on a more regular basis,” Vigneault said in the same breakup day news conference. “That is part of the growth and evolution as a player.”
For Hayes, the target in the upcoming season will be to prove that he can lock down his place centering either of the top-two lines. It was a good bounce-back year for Hayes, who grew into an improving two-way center and earned Vigneault’s trust on the penalty kill, averaging 1:25 shorthanded minutes per game. But he ended the regular season on a 12-game goal drought, which extended into 12 goalless playoff games. His last goal came March 12.
In Miller’s case, he became more effective at utilizing his strength and continued his growth into becoming a more effective defensive-zone forward. Yet he ran into similar issues as Hayes. He finished the regular season without a goal in the final five games and went goalless in 12 playoff games. In all, he has just one goal in 40 career postseason games. Both he and Hayes are restricted free agents next summer.
Derek Stepan has been shipped to Arizona. Rick Nash is 33 and entering the final year of his contract. Zuccarello will celebrate his 30th birthday before opening night. Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis are long retired. Carl Hagelin and Derick Brassard are wearing the uniforms of playoff rivals.
As good of a Ranger as Stepan was, he did not make enough of a leap to be untouchable. Clearly, the Rangers were uncomfortable with his no-trade clause kicking in July 1 and being locked in to a $6.5 million salary cap commitment.
The writing is on the wall for Kreider, Hayes and Miller. Stepan and Brassard weren’t viewed as indispensable in a salary cap world, where the Rangers desire to get younger and faster.
This has always been an earn-it league – even moreso in an era when every long-term contract handed out by general managers has deep-reaching ramifications. The torch has been passed down over time to Kreider, Hayes and Miller. It’s up to them to hold it highly and cement their future in Rangers blue, red and white. Their future is in their hands.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey