The New York Rangers gave up a king’s ransom for Keith Yandle at the 2015 trade deadline, sending top prospect Anthony Duclair, a first round draft pick, two second round picks, and defenseman John Moore to the Arizona Coyotes for the offensively-minded defenseman.
At the time, it was a move that was considered the Rangers’ final piece in the hopeful championship puzzle. New York sought to solidify their backend with a pair of defenseman that could contribute offensively, where stay-at-home defenseman Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein, and Marc Staal mainly could not. In theory, this idea was wise.
But in practice, it failed to mask New York’s main problems—mainly that Girardi and Staal were receiving major minutes on a championship-contending team. While Yandle’s acquisition could have signaled a change in ice time for the Girardi-Staal pair, instead it is Yandle that has seen his average time on ice drop to the lowest it has been since 2008.
The Rangers’ mismanagement of Yandle dates back to their original acquisition of the Massachussets native. Yandle has often been cited as a potential defensive liability, instead being touted for his offensive skill. When he was being considered to play for the United States Olympic team in Sochi, Russia, an interesting conversation was sparked among U.S. Hockey executives about Yandle possibly being the eighth defenseman:
If a top-four defenseman is absent, does your eighth guy now have to play more significant minutes in more diverse situations?
Isn’t it better, Burke suggests, to have a more well-rounded player as the extra guy?
“I don’t want Keith Yandle playing minutes in that situation,” Burke says. “I want Erik Johnson on the team.”
Holmgren wonders if they aren’t obsessing too much about Yandle given the coaches’ reluctance to have him on the team, and whether they should focus on other options.
The idea of Yandle being a turnover risk is one that remains a popular concern among NHL executives and media. This could very well be why Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault refuses to try Yandle on the penalty kill or in important game situations.
The idea that Yandle could make a key blunder is more pervasive than the thought that either Girardi or Staal could make a similar mistake. While at the same time, there is a lack of evidence to support either of the pair being sure-handed themselves.
This narrative has driven Yandle into the fifth-highest average time on ice among Rangers defensemen, despite the facts that Yandle leads the team in Corsi For percentage relative (6.5 percent) and assists, and is second on the entire team in Corsi For percentage (52.3 percent). He’s also second in Fenwick For percentage (51.4 percent) for the Rangers. All of these numbers are ahead of Girardi and Staal, while Yandle’s PDO (statistic measuring on-ice luck) is second lowest on the team, compared to 4th and 11th highest for Girardi and Staal, respectively.
That the Rangers moved a 19-year-old top-six forward and a first round pick, among other assets, for Yandle should be reason enough for the team to play him as a first defensive-pairing player. And yet, Alain Vigneault has consistently kept him on the third pair, playing him as a power play specialist that does not see the ice in defensive situations.
While Girardi and Staal (considered to be possession ‘voids’) continue to lead the Rangers to defensive breakdowns on an almost nightly basis, Yandle finds himself waiting in the wings, making the best of the opportunities he is given. For Yandle, those opportunities do not come up very often. Consequently, the Rangers have mismanaged the man they acquired to help them manage winning a Stanley Cup.