If there was never a halt to the 2019-20 NHL season, the race for the Stanley Cup would have been in full force right about now. Conference Finals games would have been underway and the Flyers would have been pushing for their first taste of the Finals since 2009-10. Yes, I firmly believe what the Flyers were working toward this season was something special.
It's clear that there were many new elements being implemented during training camp back in September. While new faces behind the bench were added since last season, there was another crucial addition to the squad during the summer that should now be considered the missing piece.
At the initial point of his signing, no one knew the impact Hayes was going to have on his new team. The relationship he created with head coach Alain Vigneault during their time with the Rangers certainly helped with the transition but it felt like the 28-year-old fit right in.
"It's old stuff obviously with a new team," Hayes noted back during training camp. "With the same coach that I had my first four years, it's relieving to be able to get as comfortable with the coach as soon as possible."
At first, the level of normalcy in the locker room almost felt too good to be true. Dating back to one of the first times Hayes spoke to media back in September - it was like he was meant to end up in Philadelphia. It doesn't matter if that sounds a bit cliché, you could sense a different energy compared to what the room was like before he was a member of it.
And it took little to no time before Hayes wanted to start making his mark in the organization by taking on a leadership role.
"As soon as I signed here, I was getting text messages from some of the players," Hayes said. "I'm an older guy now - kind of. Try to help all the younger guys, try to explain how quick the drills go from one drill to the other.
"When I was younger, I looked up to guys and I'm just trying to be that guy now."
Things are always easier said than done and while it was something he noted during his early days - just how much of an impact was he really going to make in his first year? It turns out, quite a big one.
After signing a seven-year deal with the Flyers, he quickly earned the respect of his teammates and was named an alternate captain - which was announced leading up to the Global Series that was held in Prague, Czech Republic. (It's almost hard to believe the Global Series even occurred at the start of the season - feels like ages ago.)
It only took five periods and some change into the year before he found the back of the net for his first time as a Flyer - and a power play goal during the home opener definitely makes for a great first impression.
From that point on, Hayes became a crucial part to the core of this team and an absolute fan-favorite as the season evolved.
His contributions on-ice added much needed depth down the center. Imagine if Hayes didn't sign with the Flyers and the news was still released about Nolan Patrick and his migraine disorder? Chances are, Claude Giroux would have had to move back to the middle, which would have broken up the strong duo of him and Sean Couturier … and fans would have rioted if productivity didn't meet their expectations.
Thankfully - for everyone's sake - that was not the case. So far through his 69 games played, he's tallied 41 points (23 goals 18 assists). He sits fifth overall on the team in points, just behind Travis Konecny (61), Couturier (59), Jakub Voracek (56) and Giroux (53).
Producing on special teams also became one of his strong points - having four short-handed goals and being an absolute force on the penalty kill.
Now, let's get back to that fan-favorite aspect - and it has everything to do with him being mic'd up. There have been hysterical bits left and right that not only showcase the comedic side of him, but also the bond and relationships he's been building with teammates. Athletes are still people at the end of the day and seeing the human aspect of moments like these put him high on the list of favorites. Accomplishing that in such a small amount of time is something that not every athlete in Philadelphia can say, but he has been welcomed with open arms.
If I were to rank how the Flyers did in free agency this offseason, I would say they won the whole thing thanks to Hayes. They didn't have to go after one of the top free agents and severely overpay - that was not the need for the Flyers. The talent was already here and it was time to fill the gaps and find players that complimented the current roster.
Going out and getting big-named talent doesn't fix anything without having a well-rounded team. If that were the case, Connor McDavid and the Oilers should have at least three cups by now.
Remember when the Devils "won" the offseason because they had the first overall pick, drafted Jack Hughes and acquired P.K. Subban? They're currently sitting at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division because there are still far too many holes within that roster to become a threat of any sort in the East.
The same goes for the New York Rangers after signing Artemi Panarin. Don't get it twisted - Panarin was having a Hart Trophy caliber season, which helped the Rangers get on the league's radar at times. Though looking at the surrounding talent on their roster, things were never going to grow since majority of the work was heavily relied on one person.
Does that ring a bell?
Giroux had been carrying the weight of the Flyers on his back for a decade - and there is finally balance throughout the entire roster. This is why the season was clicking on every level. If one player didn't show up one night, there were others right in line to step up and take responsibility. In previous years, that was never the case. A slow night from Giroux often meant a loss of two points.
One single addition in Hayes completed a puzzle that was in the works for years. There is veteran presence being utilized the right way, a young core with proper guidance and trust from the coaches, new bench bosses with impressive résumés and the future of the franchise with Carter Hart between the pipes.
If and when the 2019-20 NHL season returns - the finished product is going to be one for the ages and that all traces back to that final piece.
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Kevin Hayes was the missing piece of the Flyers' puzzle originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia