By Sean Hartnett
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It’s time for Alain Vigneault to promote point-getting defenseman Keith Yandle from the supporting cast to a starring role on Broadway.
Although Yandle’s name is swirling around the rumor mill and could net the Rangers a high return if he’s moved before the trade deadline, they need No. 93 to serve as a go-to guy for the playoff chase.
Yandle is more than just one of the league’s premier offense-generating defensemen. What he’s doing in a Rangers sweater is near-historic and even more remarkable when you consider his usage.
Since the 1999-2000 season, only Brian Leetch has recorded more assists per game in a single season. The Hall of Famer recorded above 0.50 per game in back-to-back seasons (2000-01 and 2001-02), while Yandle is averaging 0.48 per game this season.
Through 50 games, Yandle is leading Rangers blue liners with 0.54 points per game, despite receiving the least average ice time of their six regular defensemen. Although his 19:15 per game is his lowest since his third season in the league, his production is right in line with his career average of 0.55 points per game. His 24 assists lead the team and his 27 points lead all Rangers defensemen.
The 29-year-old deserves to be playing an integral role in even-strength and power-play situations. No longer should Yandle have to settle for third-pairing minutes and second-unit time on the man advantage.
It was head-scratching to see Yandle receive just 2:47 of power-play time across four opportunities during Tuesday’s 3-2 defeat to the Devils at Prudential Center. The Blueshirts went 0-for-4, but looked their best when Yandle was finally elevated to the top unit on their final opportunity of the night. Over the past 14 games, the Rangers have managed just two power play goals.
Yandle assisted on J.T. Miller’s second goal of the night early in the third period, setting up the red-hot winger for a one-timed chance he rocketed past stingy netminder Cory Schneider. It marked the 25th game Yandle has registered at least one point, a team high.
Following the defeat, Vigneault was asked about his power-play personnel and giving Yandle more time.
“We did (mix it up) in the third,” Vigneault said. “The power play did get some good looks.”
When Glen Sather relinquished top prospect Anthony Duclair to acquire Yandle from the Arizona Coyotes in the blockbuster deal last March, he did so knowing Yandle was the difference-maker the Blueshirts had long craved.
“I like his style of play,” Sather said after completing the trade. “You do a lot of calculated risking when you do any kind of a deal, but this is the kind of player we’d been watching a long time. Ulf Samuelsson had him in Phoenix. He knows him very well. He knows his character. I know his background. I know his history. He plays the style that our team plays. This player doesn’t come along very often. He’s like (Rick) Nash in a lot of ways. We’ll just see how it develops.”
Not since the days of Leetch have the Rangers possessed a weapon quite like Yandle. Sather did his part last March by arming Vigneault with an explosive skating defenseman, oozing with creativity and puckhandling prowess.
Now, it’s up to Vigneault to find a remedy for the Rangers’ sagging special teams and offering Yandle increased power play minutes could fix half of the problem. Both the power play and penalty kill have struggled this season. New York is 24th in the league with the man advantage (17 percent), while its penalty kill is 25th, converting just 78.4 percent of the time
“We’re doing a lot of good things right now, but we obviously need to get our special teams unit going and that’s my responsibility,” he said.
If the Rangers wish to get their power play on track, their playoff run in gear and take a run at the Cup, Vigneault must hand Yandle a promotion.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey