By Sean Hartnett
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To the surprise of many, Rangers forward Kevin Hayes‘ sophomore NHL season didn’t get off to a flying start. The 6-foot-5 center was a hot favorite to follow up a standout rookie campaign with a scintillating year two.

Blistering words have been tossed at Hayes from the press box, and head coach Alain Vigneault questioned the Dorchester, Massachusetts, native’s effort level just before the new year in Nashville. There was a perception that Hayes was coasting on the ice and he was a healthy scratch in consecutive road games in Tampa Bay and Nashville.

It’s a perception not shared by alternate captain Derek Stepan, who rose to Hayes’ defense.

“He’s definitely handled himself the right way,” Stepan told following Sunday’s practice. “The best thing about Kevin is his passion for his game. At every point in a career, you’re going to go through a struggle. However the media takes it and puts it out there, that’s how you’re labeled. Sometimes it’s wrong.”

Contrary to the opinion of many experts, Stepan offered a very different take on Hayes’ play. He believes the sophomore forward is actually trying to take on too much on-ice responsibility.

“It’s not a matter of work ethic or laziness,” Stepan said. “I think the thing with Kevin is he wants to be part of the help so badly, that sometimes he tries to do everything. He works extremely hard. We’re all guilty of that at some point. He’s trying to help somebody else and it’s a read – he’s trying to do the right thing.”

Hayes snapped a 17-game goal-scoring drought in Sunday’s 4-3 overtime home defeat to the NHL-leading Washington Capitals, logging a two-point afternoon. Through 40 games, Hayes has collected 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists).

“He’s a guy that’s going to be huge for us moving forward,” Stepan said. “For him to have a nice game against Washington is big for us. I think Kevin certainly understands where that work level and competitiveness needs to be. It showed for us.

“One of our strengths as a team is how much we all care about this game, how much we all want to have success and how we understand what it takes to have success. The older guys help the younger guys, and it becomes contagious. It’s going throughout our whole lineup.”

Inside a close-knit Rangers dressing room, defenseman Keith Yandle is serving as Hayes’ mentor. Part of their bonding is shared over dinner, as Keith and wife Kristyn invite Hayes into their apartment.

“I’m pretty sure the guys get annoyed with how much time I spend with him,” Hayes told “We live in the same building. I spend a lot of time with his kids. His wife is a really good cook — I definitely owe a little bit of meal money for the amount of time she cooks for me. It’s really nice to have someone who’s been through this whole process. He’s helped me out in ways that I don’t know if I’d be where I am right now without him. I’m very grateful and thankful.”

“Keith is a guy he looks up to and has taken him under his wing,” Stepan said.

Keep in mind, Hayes is a 23-year-old and one without the benefit of minor-league seasoning. A lot of promising youngsters are able to work through their growing pains in the minors. Under the NHL spotlight, any mistake Hayes makes is going to be analyzed and picked apart. He has only played 119 regular season games, and he’s going through the learning process. While year two hasn’t gone fully according to plan, he’s still the kind of creative, high-skilled talent who could go on to star in this league.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey