By Sean Hartnett
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If the Rangers wish to lock down a playoff berth, head coach Alain Vigneault is going to need to start riding difference-making defenseman Keith Yandle like he’s Secretariat.
The Blueshirts spend far too much time chasing in their own end and have become a possession-deficient team, falling to 24th in the NHL in five-on-five Corsi percentage at 47.5 percent. In Yandle, the Rangers possess a truly rare talent whose abilities mesh perfectly with Vigneault’s ideals.
AV demands quick zone exits. He offers his defensemen offensive freedom, expecting them to take chances, carry the puck and make plays. Given Yandle’s ability to efficiently advance the puck up ice and keep it out of dangerous areas, he deserves to be on the ice as much as possible in all situations. Through 69 games, Yandle has averaged 19:56 of ice time per night. This is a player who was accustomed to playing 24-minute nights in Arizona.
“I like my teams to play the right way,” Vigneault said in his introductory press conference in June 2013. “If you’ve got room to make a play, make a play. If you’ve got space and time to carry the puck, carry the puck. If the other team is playing you tight, sometimes you have to make the high-percentage play and chip the puck in.
“I believe that your top skill players have to be given a little bit more latitude,” Vigneault continued. “They have to understand the game. They have to understand the time in the game when you need to play maybe higher percentage, but they also have to be given that latitude to make something out of nothing. That’s why those guys have the high-end skill, and you’ve got to give them that leeway.”
In other words, the green light is always on for an adept puck mover of Yandle’s caliber, so AV should be piling minutes on number 93’s back like a generous deli man stacks meats on a triple decker.
Throughout the John Tortorella era, the homegrown duo of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi was trusted to log massive minutes given his defense-first tendencies. The Tortorella Rangers played a collapsing system. His players were asked to block shots with reckless abandon and to constantly place their bodies in the fray.
It seems like the years of punishment have taken a toll on Girardi and Staal. They look considerably slower compared to past seasons and aren’t moving the puck efficiently out of dangerous areas. It’s not just the eye test either; advanced stats back up their 2015-16 struggles. According to War-On-Ice.com, Girardi’s seasonal minus-310 in five-on-five on-ice Corsi differential is second-worst in the league, trailing only Colorado’s Francois Beauchemin. Staal ranks 10th-worst among all skaters by the same measure at minus-214.
Yandle leads the Rangers with a plus-67 seasonal five-on-five on-ice Corsi differential. He finished Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh with a power play assist, extending his point streak to five games. Yandle is the first Ranger to record an assist in 33 individual games in a single season since Brian Leetch in 2001-02. The 29-year-old is also the first Blueshirt to register at least 30 assists and 20 even-strength assists since Leetch did so in 2000-01.
Through 69 games, Yandle’s 1.53 assists per 60 minutes among defensemen trails only Erik Karlsson, John Klingberg and Kris Letang. His 0.22 G/60, 1.53 A/60 and 1.75 P/60 are all higher than Montreal Canadiens superstar P.K. Subban. Yandle only trails Karlsson and Nashville’s Roman Josi in primary assists, logging 22 this season.
Following Sunday’s loss, Girardi admitted the Rangers’ passage to the playoffs is not secure. The Rangers are currently hanging on to second place in the Metropolitan Division, but are being chased hard by the Islanders and Penguins. On top of that, the Philadelphia Flyers are hoping to capitalize on any slip up and push themselves into wild card position.
“There’s no check mark beside our name,” Girardi said. “We need to get the points and get in the playoffs. Even though we’re second in our division, it doesn’t mean anything. Teams are right within grasp, within arms reach.”
The Rangers should be able to take care of business and lock up a playoff spot, but it’s shouldn’t need to come down to a dogfight in the final weeks. Their upcoming three-game West Coast swing against the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks will be a tremendous challenge before they return home next Monday to host the Florida Panthers.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey