Why Kevin Hayes could be summer trade casualty of Flyers’ rebuild after bounce-back season

Perhaps the prevailing narrative surrounding Kevin Hayes this summer should be an entirely positive one.

Think back to where Hayes was this time last year. He had appeared in 48 games in 2021-22, requiring three separate surgical procedures to begin to resolve the core muscle injury that had plagued him throughout the previous season — a season that began with Hayes dealing with the tragic death of his brother Jimmy.

So his 2022-23 campaign, in many ways, was an absolute triumph.

As healthy as he’d been in two years, Hayes stormed out of the gate from a scoring standpoint. Once again, Hayes was truly mobile on the ice, and it showed in his regained ability to attack the offensive zone and crash the net. In fact, Hayes wouldn’t miss a single game due to injury on his way to the second-highest full-season point total of his career. Hayes — after two long, tough years — was back.

And now, Hayes very well could be gone — at least in Philadelphia.

Hayes may have gotten his career back on track after a hellish year. But his bounce back coincided with the Flyers’ full-fledged pivot to a rebuild mentality and the hiring of John Tortorella — who clearly came away unimpressed with even this healthy and improved version of Hayes. Now, his summer exit appears a certainty — as long as new Flyers GM Daniel Briere can find a taker for Hayes and the three years remaining on his $50 million contract.

When the 2022-23 season began, Hayes was being deployed as one of the team’s most essential forwards — a top-line, all-situations center. He ended it as a winger, often on the third line.

So what happened? Tortorella and changing organizational priorities, mostly.

With the news that Sean Couturier would not be ready for the start of the season (and ultimately wouldn’t play at all), Hayes kicked off the year as the team’s 1C and thrived in the early going, putting up eight points in his first five games. But Game 6 was the first sign of player/coach trouble. Frustrated with the play of the team and his top players in particular, Tortorella benched both Hayes and Travis Konecny for the third period of the Oct. 23 showdown with the San Jose Sharks.

Konecny quickly earned his way back into Torts’ good graces, after a positive one-on-one conversation with him in the wake of the benching and a monster first period the following game.

Hayes didn’t.

Despite Hayes’ undeniable offensive production, Tortorella zeroed in on his defensive shortcomings at the center position. On Nov. 19, Tortorella’s frustration finally left the dressing room and manifested itself in impossible-to-miss game-day decisions; Hayes was dropped to Line 3 against Montreal — centering Patrick Brown and Max Willman — and then was held off the ice for the final minute of play as the Flyers tried (and failed) to close out the game.

“I mean, you saw the guys I had out on the ice at the end. That kind of spells it out for you,” Tortorella said when asked if he needed more leadership from the Flyers’ veterans. “I don’t need to answer that question, you can just tell by the people I’m putting on the ice.”

Yikes. And that would be a mere prelude to the bigger move that Tortorella would make two days later — moving Hayes, a longtime center, to the wing, justifying the decision by arguing that rookie Noah Cates (a longtime winger still learning the finer points of the center position while also transitioning to the NHL) was better defensively down low than Hayes. Tortorella would move Hayes back to the middle the following game, but on Nov. 26, he was returned to the wing, where he would stay for three months.

Well, with the exception of Dec. 17 versus the Rangers, when Hayes wasn’t on the wing, or at center. He was in the press box, a healthy scratch after a particularly rough game against the Devils two nights earlier.

In the midst of all this, to Hayes’ credit, he kept scoring. In fact, at the All-Star break, Hayes had 45 points in 50 games — making him a worthy selection to that team, even as his own coach had made him a healthy scratch and expressed public doubts regarding Hayes’ ability to perform the basic duties of his primary position.

Hayes proved unable to keep up his scoring pace, though given the circumstances, it’s not difficult to theorize why. Neither Tortorella nor Chuck Fletcher was willing to publicly rule out the possibility of Hayes being moved at the trade deadline, with both essentially admitting that Hayes probably didn’t fit anymore given their pivot to a rebuilding mentality. Ultimately, Hayes stayed, but as the coaching staff shifted to giving young players maximum opportunities, Hayes’ ice time dipped dramatically in March and April, even as Tortorella did return Hayes to the middle for 15 of the last 24 games. But he was no longer the 1C. Now, he was essentially a third-liner, getting 17 minutes a night while watching Cates, Morgan Frost and Owen Tippett get the prime scoring minutes that used to be his.

The writing was on the wall, and Hayes acknowledged in early April that he was fully capable of comprehending it.

“You can see who’s part of it and who isn’t,” he said. “I mean, it’s pretty easy to read a message.”

How good was Hayes’ season?

From a raw points standpoint, Hayes’ season is difficult to criticize.

Some might argue that 54 points isn’t anything special for a player counting $7.14 million against the cap. But the Flyers were well aware of Hayes’ point production upside when they signed him to that deal. In fact, 54 points is Hayes’ second-best scoring season of his career, trailing only his contract year when he racked up 55 in 71 games.

Hayes made his first-ever All-Star appearance. He finished with the most shots on goal (209) he had ever produced in a season. And more than anything else, he showed that the three core muscle surgical procedures didn’t rob him of his overall effectiveness.

That said, it’s not like Hayes’ season was a truly dominant one.

It’s important to remember that scoring was up in the NHL — 11 players cracked the century mark in points, and Connor McDavid delivered a whopping 153 points. That’s the most since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96. In other words, 54 points in 2022-23 isn’t the same as 54 points even four or five years ago. So where did Hayes rank among NHL forwards in terms of his scoring and overall play?

  • 189th by five-on-five points/60 (low-end second-liner)
  • 158th by power-play points/60 (low-end PP1/high-end PP2)
  • 36th percentile among NHL forwards by even strength expected goal (xG) impact (low-end third-liner)

Hayes was fine this year. But relative to the rest of the league, he was more of a solid middle-six caliber forward than a true impact guy, and that can’t be ignored.

His strengths are clear. Hayes can still score, both at five-on-five and on the power play. With his skating legs back, his shot and chance creation metrics were way up year over year, and his controlled entry rate of 64.6 percent hints at his renewed ability to attack the middle of the ice with speed and control of the puck. Offensively, Hayes can still bring it.

Hayes’ weaknesses? For starters, while he’s back to being a good scorer, he’s not an elite one — and only elite scorers tend to get passes from coaches when it comes to poor defensive play. Tortorella isn’t making up this issue, either. Per Evolving-Hockey’s RAPM model which isolates player impact on team results, Hayes graded out in the 16th percentile among qualifying forwards in terms of xG prevention. The defensive problems that Tortorella spent the bulk of the season trying to address with Hayes weren’t a figment of his imagination.

Torts’ attempt to “fix” Hayes

So did Tortorella’s in-season attempts to address Hayes’ defensive issues work?

Well, sort of.

Torts basically did two things with Hayes to try to deal with his defensive flaws. First, he rode him extremely hard behind closed doors, which he more or less promised he was going to do in his very first media session after being hired as Flyers head coach. And then, when that didn’t work, he moved him to the wing for three months, putting Hayes at a position that required far less in terms of regular defensive responsibilities.

It’s impossible to know from the outside if Tortorella’s regular criticisms of Hayes in tape studies and team meetings successfully taught (or shamed) him into more conscientious defense. But his defensive metrics did improve as the year went along, so it’s at least possible they had an effect.

Expected goal data via Evolving-Hockey; scoring chance data via Natural Stat Trick. League average xG against/60: 2.69. League average scoring chances against/60: 28.81. League average HD scoring chances against/60: 12.08.

That said, by then Hayes was largely getting third-line minutes, against easier competition, which likely played a role in improving his defensive metrics — as did the all-around improvement of the team defense over the course of the season.

And then, of course, there was Hayes’ move to the wing, which went about as well as one would guess.

In the end, Hayes spent 35 games largely at center, and 46 games mostly at wing. The results showcased the offense/defense tradeoff perfectly.

Hayes’ personal offense? Better at center. His defense and the team’s all-around two-way results with him on the ice? Better on the wing, but still nothing special.

It’s little surprise that Hayes’ personal comfort down the middle helped to make him a more effective scorer; it’s also not a shock that playing a position that asked less of him defensively, the Flyers gave up fewer quality chances (and spent less time buried in their own zone).

So Tortorella’s strategy worked, in the sense that Hayes’ defensive results did improve, and the move to the wing resulted in better team defense. But it also didn’t fix Hayes, in terms of helping him to improve his defense without sacrificing offensive comfort.

And the impasse held.

The case for trading Hayes

There are quite a few reasons being thrown around to justify a Hayes trade this summer. And it’s tough to deny that most of it comes from the apparent disconnect with Tortorella. After all, that’s what has driven the headlines.

It’s not like the speculation isn’t unjustified. The Flyers are in desperate need of centers, but Torts apparently doesn’t view him as a center in his system. And that’s not an indefensible stance — Hayes at this point grades out as an offense-only forward who is more good than great at producing offense. Some coaches might have patience for a player like that, and emphasize his positives rather than fixating on his negatives. Tortorella is not that kind of coach, particularly right now, when his main focus is culture-building, rather than squeezing out a couple extra wins here and there.

But here’s the thing: even if Tortorella and Hayes were best buddies, it would still make sense for Briere to trade Hayes this summer. Why?

Because Hayes is 31 with three more years left on a contract with a $7.14 million cap hit. It’s really that simple.

Hayes is a good player. But he’s not worth $7.14 million per year in on-ice value. Dom Luszczyszyn’s model pegs him at $4.4 million right now, and that seems basically correct for a solid middle-six scorer. Add in the fact that Hayes is in his early 30s, and it’s difficult to imagine his level of performance getting any better over the next three seasons. He’s very much in the midst of the physical decline phase of his career, and that decline is likely to manifest over the final three years of his career.

Plus, the Flyers aren’t likely to be competitive for those years anyway, at least in terms of chasing down the Stanley Cup. Probably the most optimistic timeline puts the Flyers back in realistic contention in 2025-26, and a 33-year-old Hayes isn’t going to be worth $7.14 million at that point. There’s an extremely good chance he’s not even worth $4 million by that point.

So trading Hayes now doesn’t really qualify as selling high. It’s more selling before his value completely collapses, as he gets older and older playing for a team with no real title designs. The Torts issue is just icing on the case to trade Hayes cake. Rebuilding teams trade players like Hayes every time.

Now, other NHL teams are also fully aware that Hayes — even now — isn’t worth $7.14 million. Yes, the cap ceiling will go up in 2023-24, but even in a best-case scenario, it’s only jumping to $86.5 million, and it could be as low as $83.5 million. Other clubs aren’t going to exactly be flush with cap space, and it’s difficult to imagine one actively trading assets for a $7.14 million player whose actual value is closer to $4 million.

The good news is that the Flyers are allowed to retain up to 50 percent of Hayes’ cap hit in order to get him into that range.

Would it be ideal for up to $3.57 million in dead space to be sitting on the Flyers’ books through 2025-26? Of course not. But it’s highly unlikely that the team will be contending for anything meaningful during that time span anyway, and they could use future assets to aid in the rebuild a lot more than they need Hayes helping to turn a 33-win team into one that finishes with 34 or the $3 million in dead space to add a quality depth player to do the same. Teams won’t be banging down the door for Hayes at $3.57 million, but it’s tough to imagine there won’t be at least a few takers looking for a quality middle-sixer, especially if said team views him as a center in its system. They get a win-now piece at a fair cap hit price; the Flyers get future assets.

This doesn’t mean that Briere should simply give Hayes away at 50 percent retention if he can help it. After all, cap space is still valuable to a rebuilding club, in large part because it can be deployed to collect even more future assets. The Flyers could take on bad contracts from contending clubs and extract a draft pick premium to do so. They could also sign existing young players to long-term deals which might be mild overpays in the short-term, but have the potential to be big-time savings long-term, when (hopefully) the Flyers are contending again. Every dollar that Briere can avoid retaining on Hayes is another dollar he can allocate to those also-important ends.

That’s why the Hayes situation will be a good early test for Briere. Outside observers will get an early sense both of Briere’s creativity and his negotiating ability. What kind of return can he get for a player that everyone in the league knows the Flyers are looking to move? Can he overcome the leverage loss that comes with a very public disconnect between player and coach, especially given industry knowledge that Tortorella has real power in the organization’s new “triumvirate of leadership?” Add in Hayes’ modified no-trade clause (he can veto a deal to 12 predetermined clubs), and it’s not going to be easy for Briere to lock down a solid deal involving Hayes. Possible, but not easy.

And if that’s ultimately how it plays out, it will come as a disappointment to Hayes. After all, he thought he was signing to spend the rest of his career in Philadelphia, and by all accounts, he still loves the city and the organization. The Flyers just aren’t in a position to need a player like Hayes right now. Assuming he is indeed moved this summer, Hayes can at least take solace in the fact that he got his career back on track in 2022-23 and can land with a more competitive team next season.

All statistics courtesy of Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick and Corey Sznajder.

(Photo: Eric Hartline / USA Today)