NASHVILLE — Five weeks into a maddening funk, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault took a bold personnel step on Tuesday, preparing to bench forward Kevin Hayes for Wednesday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But Vigneault did not stop at merely assigning Hayes to work as an extra during practice before the team left for Tampa. Afterward he offered a blistering assessment of Hayes to a small group of reporters.
That included everything from Hayes’ ability level to his work ethic. Asked whether he believes Hayes has worked hard enough this season, Vigneault said, “No, no I don’t.”
No one would suggest Hayes, 23, a 6-5, 227-pounder with a seemingly promising future, is solely to blame for the Rangers’ 4-10-2 slide. But he obviously isn’t helping enough.
That includes a turnover in Monday night’s loss to the Predators here that led to a goal in the Rangers’ 5-3 loss.
“There’s been more than one occasion, but obviously that turnover that led to that goal was one of many that we’ve seen this year,” Vigneault said. “You show players confidence, you throw them back out, you hope that they’re going to get it by the experience. But in Kevin’s case it hasn’t been the case yet.”
Hayes acknowledged he has not lived up to his own expectations this season, during which he has six goals and 11 assists. He is goalless in 16 games — exactly coinciding with the Rangers’ slump.
“My game isn’t nearly what I want it to be,” he said. “You have goals and aspirations coming into a season, and I haven’t even come close to mine. I’m struggling right now.”
Still, Hayes said he remains confident in his abilities and is “not going to stray away from what I bring to the table.”
Might this serve as a wakeup call? “Obviously you don’t want to sit out games, but I don’t make out the lineup.”
Vigneault does, unfortunately for Hayes.
“We all have our tipping points and I think Kevin has had an extra-long leash, especially considering Step [Derek Stepan] was out for quite some time,” the coach said. “But there’s just nothing going on. At the end of the day we’re at the point now where we have to make some decisions in the best interests of the team.”
There was hope Hayes could be a big, young force after his promising impression last season when he scored 17 goals with 28 assists after signing in the summer of 2014. He had been a first-round draft pick of the Blackhawks in 2010 before opting to play at Boston College.
“Obviously he hasn’t lived up to that,” Vigneault said of the Rangers’ hopes for him. “Did we overestimate his possibilities? I don’t know. Time will tell. But I do know what I’m seeing now and what we’re seeing now is not good enough.”
Vigneault said he discussed the decision with management and that it was decided the time was right to act. Told that Hayes still seems confident in his abilities, the coach said he likes players with swagger and confidence, “but you have to be able to go out on the ice and perform.”
Notes & quotes: Vigneault twice left the bench during Monday night’s game. Was he ill? “I had a couple of parts that needed fixing,” he said, smiling but declining to elaborate . . . Vigneault said he most likely will go on Wednesday with the lines that practiced Tuesday: Nash-Stepan-Fast; Miller-Brassard-Zuccarello; Kreider-Lindberg-Etem; Stalberg-Moore-Glass.