By Sean Hartnett
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High expectations were placed on Keith Yandle’s shoulders when he arrived in New York on the eve of the March 2, 2015 trade deadline. Given his status as an explosive puck mover and adept power-play quarterback, Rangers fans expected immediate fireworks.
The ambitious trade reaffirmed the Rangers’ reputation as a win-now franchise. General manager Glen Sather parted with high-ceiling prospect Anthony Duclair, John Moore, a conditional 2016 first-round pick and a 2015 second-round pick to pry Yandle from the rebuilding Arizona Coyotes.
“I think Yandle could be the final piece of a Stanley Cup-winning team,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said in a conference call following the completion of the trade. “When you look at that defense there, he comes underneath a couple strong defenders in Marc Staal and Ryan McDonagh. Wow, that is dynamic.”
The Rangers finally possessed a bona fide power-play game changer, but Yandle needed to quickly grasp the finer points of Alain Vigneault’s uptempo system which allows defensemen to pick their spots to join the rush. Yandle admitted on Wednesday that he didn’t truly feel up to speed until the final weeks of the regular season.
“I think it took me a little while,” Yandle said. “I was so used to playing in a certain system and playing with certain guys. You get to have the freedom to play here and play with guys that are highly skilled, highly competitive. It’s a lot of fun to come to the rink every day. I think it took me a little bit — and I’d say probably a couple weeks before the playoffs is — when I really started to feel comfortable and felt like myself.”
As soon as Yandle had gotten a handle on AV’s system, he suffered an AC (shoulder) separation in Game 2 of the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs when Pittsburgh Penguins winger Blake Comeau delivered a heavy hit along the boards.
“Obviously, it’s playoffs and you get banged up, but for me it was tough,” Yandle said. “I was really starting to feel good and then I got hurt the second game, playing with an AC separation. It was tough, but honestly – you’ve got to be willing to do it, and I think any guy in that locker room is willing and able to do that.”
Although Yandle performed at a high level and collected a respectable 11 points in 19 playoff games, there’s a feeling that Rangers fans only got to see glimpses of the real Yandle. On the June 1 breakup day, Yandle admitted that he began feeling close to 100 percent during the Eastern Conference Final. The 29-year-old defenseman said on Wednesday that his shoulder did not require surgery and he is fully recovered.
Yandle understands the need for him to deliver the goods on the power play. Three power-play points in 21 regular-season games and four power-play points in 19 playoff games wasn’t the output the Rangers were expecting. One year earlier, Yandle finished tied for fifth in the NHL with 31 power-play points in 82 regular-season games.
“I feel the power play is my best asset,” Yandle said. “I feel like I can help the team with that, and I think it will be good to start the year here, especially in training camp, being able to go through video more. It’s not as much of a tight schedule as it was when I got here at the end of the year, and you can kind of work on things you weren’t able to work on – and almost start fresh here.”
Since 2010-11, Yandle is tied for 16th among active skaters in regular season power-play points – collecting 107 PPP. Yandle is looking forward to freshly reviewing game tape with power play coach Scott Arniel once training camp begins on September 17.
“I think he does a really good job of it,” Yandle said of film study with Arniel. “The way that everything is set up here is phenomenal. Especially for me, to start the year here and go through video and things we did last year right and wrong, and be able to fix things early in the year. I think it will be good.”
Since Vigneault took charge of the Rangers ahead of the 2013-14 season and installed Arniel as associate head coach and power play coach, the Blueshirts rank 18th in the NHL with a combined regular season power-play percentage of 17.5. In 44 playoff games under Vigneault-Arniel, the Rangers’ playoff power-play success rate is 15.8 percent.
An acclimated Yandle could ignite the Rangers’ power play in 2015-16.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.