By Sean Hartnett
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Glen Sather didn’t fear the risks when parting with a huge package to pry puck-moving defenseman Keith Yandle from the Arizona Coyotes. If Yandle fizzled in the playoffs, fans would naturally question the New York Rangers general manager for dealing away high-ceiling prospect Anthony Duclair and pair of valuable draft picks.
On March 1, Sather sent Duclair, defenseman John Moore, a lottery-protected first-round selection in either the 2016 or 2017 draft, and a second-round pick in the this year’s draft to the Coyotes for Yandle and 27-year-old defenseman Chris Summers.
“You do a lot of calculated risking when you do any kind of deal,” Sather said a day later. “This is the kind of player I wanted, a player that we’ve been watching for a long time.”
The gamble paid off. Yandle was everything the Rangers expected him to be and more during their run that ended in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Not only did the fast-skating defenseman thrive in Alain Vigneault’s uptempo system, he also added a bit of unexpected snarl and physicality. At all times, Yandle competed with aggression. The big shiner below his right eye served as a badge of honor.
Yandle finished the playoffs with 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 19 games while playing through a sprained AC joint in his shoulder for the majority of the postseason. The injury was suffered in Game 2 of the first round after Yandle was hit hard into the boards by Pittsburgh Penguins forward Blake Comeau.
At Monday’s breakup day, Yandle spoke about the injury.
“I was banged-up, but I think everybody is,” he said. “Nobody feels 100 percent. Time to get healthy now. When I got hurt against Pittsburgh, it took some time to kind of heal.”
Yandle’s performances got better as his health improved during the playoffs. He peaked during the conference finals against Tampa Bay. The 28-year-old defenseman finished the series with two goals and three assists.
“The longer we went it got better and better,” Yandle said. “I was as close to 100 percent in this last series.”
Having spent time as Yandle’s teammate in Arizona and New York, Summers was impressed watching him serve as a go-to guy for the Blueshirts while playing through the shoulder sprain. The injury forced Yandle to miss several practices, though he was able to suit up for all 19 playoff games.
“To play through it and to be able to perform the way he did, he’s the kind of guy you want in your locker room and on your team,” Summers said. “He’s a guy who can propel a team to the next level. I think he adds a lot to anybody’s a game – a good puck-moving defenseman that finds ways to score goals and get points.”
Yandle was one of four Rangers blue-liners to push through pain during the playoffs. Captain Ryan McDonagh suffered a broken right foot in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. He was in a boot and on crutches when he met with the media on Monday. Dan Girardi suffered a Grade 1 MCL sprain in Game 4 of the Lightning series. Marc Staal played through a left ankle fracture for the entirety of the playoffs. Dan Boyle and Kevin Klein did not speak at breakup day.
In his first season with the Rangers, Yandle proved he could handle high expectations to perform as a difference-maker in the postseason. He enters next season in the final year of a contract that began in 2011. The Rangers are only being charged half of Yandle’s $5.25 million annual cap hit. Arizona agreed to swallow the other $2.625 million until the deal’s expiration.
The Rangers will certainly be looking to sign Yandle to a long-term extension. Before departing for the summer, he reflected on his first season in New York.
“It was everything I could have imagine it to be,” Yandle said. “To come in here and be able to play for the Rangers, at MSG, in front of the fans that we have here was something you dream about. It was fun.”
Looking back at the March 1 trade, it’s unclear whether 19-year-old Duclair will make good on his obvious potential by eventually blossoming into a star. He has some off-the-charts tools, a motivated mindset and was praised for his work ethic throughout his brief time as a Ranger. Despite all this, he is still learning the game and needs to add bulk to his 5-foot-11, 177-pound frame.
The Rangers know what they have in Yandle. He is an uber-talented defenseman in his prime, at the peak of his powers.
He’s someone that can be counted on heavily next season, when they look to go one step further: getting back to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016.
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