After Kevin Hayes said plenty of goodbyes to his New York Rangers teammates during the organization’s rebuild, it was finally his time to go.
The Rangers traded Hayes to the Winnipeg Jets ahead of the NHL’s trade deadline Monday for younger forward Brendan Lemieux, a 2019 first-round pick and a conditional 2020 fourth round pick they get only if the Jets win the Stanley Cup this spring. New York also traded defenseman Adam McQuaid to Columbus for defense prospect Julius Bergman and fourth- and seventh-round picks in this year’s draft.
It wasn’t long ago the Rangers were gunning for a title. In the past two days, they have jettisoned all three of their major unrestricted free agents in Mats Zuccarello, Hayes and McQuaid.
“We had a really good team and we had a serious chance at the Cup and we had a pretty good deep run,” Hayes said on a conference call. “I have nothing but respect for this organization and nothing but great memories here. It’s tough to leave a city like this and a team like this and the friendships that you build with some people, it’s definitely tough. But I’m excited to get going here.”
Left behind are a handful of veterans on a team that got much younger since announcing a rebuilding effort over a year ago. Forward Chris Kreider survived this deadline with a year left on his contract, and franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist on Sunday was too choked up about the trade of Zuccarello to Dallas to address it.
But this was all part of the plan, and now the Rangers have five picks in the first two rounds of the draft, cap space and young assets to turn things around quickly.
“I think pretty much we knew what the prices would be (and) I would say we met or hopefully did better than our expectations,” general manager Jeff Gorton said. “I think a lot of opportunity for our team to get better hopefully in a relatively quick fashion.”
The 26-year-old Hayes, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, has 14 goals and 28 assists in 51 games this season. He gives the Jets depth down the middle as they try to become the first Canadian-based team to win the Stanley Cup since 1993.
Hayes has 216 points (87 goals, 129 assists) in 361 career NHL games. The native of Dorchester, Massachusetts, has added two goals and eight assists in 34 career playoff games. Selected 24th overall by Chicago out of Boston College in 2010, Hayes never signed with Blackhawks and instead inked a free-agent deal with New York in August 2014.
Lemieux, 22, has nine goals and two assists in 44 games this season for Winnipeg and will join the Rangers immediately.
“I would think that we’re going to give him a pretty big opportunity here with some ice time and playing up in the lineup and seeing what he can do for us right away,” Gorton said.
While McQuaid gives Columbus what GM Jarmo Kekalainen hopes is a dose of good character, leadership, toughness and physical play, Bergmann will report to the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Hartford. Bergman was traded twice in four days after being part of the Blue Jackets’ deal with the Ottawa Senators for Matt Duchene.
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