By Sean Hartnett
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The recurring narrative of Keith Yandle being a problem has to end here.
There was an unusual amount of fans on social media pointing the finger of blame at the 29-year-old defenseman following the Rangers’ 2-1 defeat to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, a defeat which snapped the Blueshirts’ nine-game winning streak.
There’s no getting around the fact that Yandle made a poor decision by forcing a long stretch pass through the middle from behind the Rangers’ net, setting up the first Tampa Bay goal. Two Lightning skaters, Valtteri Filppula and Alex Killorn, were in close proximity to the blue line and the latter snapped a long-distance shot past Henrik Lundqvist.
It was an unnecessary risk and Yandle was under no pressure to force the play. That said, the mistake isn’t indicative of Yandle’s overall tendencies. Prior to the misplay, Yandle was arguably the Rangers’ most effective skater, generating scoring chances and making a sizable impact in all zones. Yet, you’re going to see a lot of people remembering the mistake for a long time because it came in a painful loss to the defending Eastern Conference champions.
Or, because they’re still sore over the Blueshirts moving promising winger Anthony Duclair and a couple of early-round picks to obtain Yandle from the Arizona Coyotes last March.
Yet, it was a trade the win-now Rangers absolutely had to make and it paid off in the playoffs. Yandle collected 11 points, including nine assists, in 19 postseason games while playing through a sprained AC joint in his shoulder.
“I was banged-up, but I think everybody is,” Yandle admitted on breakup day back on June 1. “Nobody feels 100 percent. When I got hurt against Pittsburgh, it took some time to kind of heal. The longer we went it got better and better. I was as close to 100 percent in this last series.”
When Yandle’s health improved, he was a difference-maker and a big reason why the Rangers were able to hang with the Lightning for seven games in the conference finals. The fast-skating, high-IQ defenseman contributed seven points in seven series games, including three power-play assists. He became the first Rangers defenseman to post three multi-point games in a four-game span during the postseason since Brian Leetch recorded five in a six-game span in 1995.
Last season, Yandle led NHL defensemen with 27 power-play assists and 46 total assists. His 29 power-play points ranked third among defensemen and was tied for 10th among all skaters.
Nineteen games into this season, Yandle leads the Blueshirts with a 51.6 even-strength Corsi percentage. His nine assists are even with winger Mats Zuccarello for the team lead. He is on pace to finish the regular season with 43 points. Since the 2009-10 season, Yandle has recorded 40 or more points every season except for the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
Over the same span, only two defensemen have collected more points than Yandle’s 288. Defending Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson has 324 and three-time Stanley Cup champion Duncan Keith has 292. Yandle’s 127 power-play points over this stretch only trails Karlsson’s 132.
One thing overlooked is Yandle’s durability. No defenseman has suited up for more regular season games since the start of the 2009-10 season. Yandle’s 479 over this stretch edges out teammate Dan Girardi’s 472. He holds the second-highest iron man streak in the league, playing in 488 consecutive regular-season games, behind Anaheim Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano’s current streak of 642.
Another underrated aspect of Yandle’s game is his improvement in the defensive zone. How about the play he made to cancel out a Steven Stamkos move on goal eight-and-a-half minutes into the third period on Thursday night?
Clearly, there’s a lot to like about what Yandle brings to the table. He’s a guy the Rangers had been coveting for years and has been a major contributor since pulling on the blue, red and white.
“I’ve been shopping for this guy for quite a while,” former general manager Glen Sather said after acquiring Yandle last March. “I know he’s the kind of player that I like. He plays the style that our team plays, he’s young, the financial arrangement we have with Arizona makes it a perfect fit for us.”
Speaking of that current arrangement, the Rangers are only being charged half of Yandle’s $5.25 million cap hit. He is in the final season of a five-year, $26.25 million deal. He will be seeking a raise given how the salary cap has escalated from $64.3 million to $71.4 million over the course of his current deal.
The Rangers regrettably allowed Anton Stralman to walk in the summer of 2014. His dependable, possession-strong game was a key reason why the Lightning were able to take the next step as a franchise by reaching last summer’s Stanley Cup Final.
Although 39-year-old Dan Boyle’s $4.5 million cap hit expires in the summer, the Rangers will again be in a salary cap bind given the need to hand out raises to key restricted free agents Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller.
Boyle aside, the Rangers have a lot of their long-term cap commitments tied to their blue line. Franchise defenseman Ryan McDonagh is locked in at $4.7 million per season through 2018-19 and his limited no-trade clause kicks in next season. Marc Staal’s annual cap hit is $5.7 million through 2020-21 and his full no-move clause shifts to a modified NTC following the 2017-18 season. Girardi’s $5.5 million annual-average deal runs through 2019-20 and currently contains a no-movement clause that becomes a modified NTC after next season. Strong-performing defenseman Kevin Klein is slotted in at a $2.9 million cap hit through 2017-18, though his contract does not include any form of no-move or no-trade protection.
It’s going to take some clever juggling, but the Rangers can’t let history repeat itself by letting a difference-making defenseman walk away at season’s end. Somehow, someway, they’ve got to figure out a way to get a deal with Yandle done.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey