By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
Keith Yandle doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be pulling on a Rangers sweater, but he feels very much at home in New York.
The highly skilled, puck-moving defenseman is keeping his mind focused on team goals despite a whirlwind of speculation surrounding his future.
“I love being here,” Yandle told WFAN.com during a one-on-one interview following Sunday’s practice. “I love playing for this team, this organization. To come to work at MSG in front of the greatest fans in the NHL, it’s something special every night. Nothing has changed on that end. I’m having fun and helping my team win.”
As the Feb. 29 trade deadline nears, speculation is heating up on the possibility of the Blueshirts dealing away the 29-year-old defenseman – who if unsigned could become the most sought-after unrestricted free agent blueliner this summer. He is in the final season of a five-year, $26.25 million contract and the Rangers are only being charged half of his $5.25 million cap hit.
Yandle said it’s up to him to control what he can by excelling on the ice, while agent Jerry Buckley handles the business behind the scenes. He’s been through this process before, given how often his name cropped up in rumors during his near-decade stay in Arizona.
“During the trade deadline my name was always thrown around in the last seven, eight years,” Yandle said. “It’s one of those things — you don’t really pay too much attention to it. You just try to go out and do your job. I’m not the type of guy to be calling my agent every week. For me, it’s about going out and doing my job on the ice and worrying what I can control. The other stuff is out of control.”
Yandle’s minutes are down in New York. His 19:09 per game this season is the lowest of his career, dating to 2008-09 — a big drop-off from the 24 minutes per game he logged with the Coyotes. Head coach Alain Vigneault has opted to trim his time on ice, frequently deploying fellow left-handers Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal in defensive zone starts.
“Here, we’re trying to use him more in offensive zone faceoffs,” Vigneault said. “If we’re down by a goal like (Saturday) and we need a goal, he’ll get a little bit more ice time. On the left side with Mac and Marc Staal, we’ve got two pretty good shutdown defensemen there that can go head-to-head against team’s top lines. So, his role is different. Minutes might be down a little bit, but they’re still real important minutes and he does a good job for us.”
Yandle said he doesn’t mind the reduction and knows it comes with the territory of playing for a team stocked with selfless individuals focused on finally winning the Stanley Cup.
“If you want to be on a winning team, you’ve got to sacrifice,” Yandle said. “Every guy on our ‘D’ could play 25-30 minutes. For us to be the best team, we all do it as a group and try to break teams down that way. Everyone has played big minutes for teams and everyone knows what it takes to play big minutes. As long as you’re winning, you’re happy. To be on a winning team and sacrifice a few minutes, it isn’t the biggest thing to sacrifice.”
But how much longer will he be calling MSG his home?
Winning is the key word. Unless the Rangers have a trick up their sleeve to entice the St. Louis Blues to part with New Rochelle native Kevin Shattenkirk, they should be doing everything in their power to ensure Yandle remains a Blueshirt for years to come. Though that will be tricky given their cap situation. Staal and Dan Girardi retain full no-move clauses through next season, while McDonagh gains a limited no-trade clause after this season.
Yandle is unquestionably the Rangers’ best puck-moving defenseman since Brian Leetch. He has collected 22 points (two goals, 20 assists) through 41 games despite a more limited role. Last spring, he became the first Rangers defenseman to post three multi-point games in a four-game span during the postseason since Leetch recorded five in a six-game span in 1995.
“The biggest thing nowadays is just holding on to the puck and having guys who can hold on to the puck and make plays,” Yandle said. “You’ve got to make plays in the offensive zone and you’ve got to be quick to get out your own end. I think that’s what makes good teams.”
Teammate Mats Zuccarello said he sees Yandle as a defenseman who has all the dangerous tools.
“He can deke, he can make plays, he can shoot, he makes smart decisions, he finds those open guys on the ice,” Zuccarello said. “A guy like that opens up your power play and makes it a little more dangerous. He finds open areas, he shoots when he has the lane.”
But Yandle’s value goes far beyond his deft passing touch and offensive zone creativity. Alternate captain Derek Stepan said he recognizes Yandle’s value as a possession-driver and knows how important that characteristic is given how the sport is evolving.
“It’s so important for all defenseman now to be offensively in the play,” Stepan said. “First of all, you have to have your defensive-defenseman, but you’re going to see a lot more guys come up with a little more offensive jump to their game. That’s the way the game is played. If you don’t have ‘D’ joining the rush, you don’t typically get a whole lot because everyone is backchecking so hard. The way the game is being played is changing the way defensemen have to play.”
The Rangers might have trouble affording Yandle in their budget, but they can’t afford to lose the playmaking blue liner, especially with the Rangers likely losing Dan Boyle’s puck-moving prowess after this season should he retire or not be retained.
It wasn’t long ago that the Rangers undervalued Anton Stralman, allowed him to walk out the door and go to Cup-chasing rival Tampa Bay. Rangers fans are hoping lightning doesn’t strike twice.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey