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Why Keith Yandle Needs To Be A Priority

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New York Rangers v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Two Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

This article shouldn't even need to be written.

We have to talk about it, though, because the Keith Yandle cloud has been hanging over the Rangers this entire year. In October I had to write a story about how Yandle was not the problem because even during the Rangers incredibly lucky and unsustainable early-season run of wins people still had a problem with him. From that story:

If Shea Weber or P.K. Subban are the heavy artillery on the battlefield, Yandle is akin to a sniper or a scout. He'll take his shot when he has it, but he's much more adapt at opening things up for someone else with his vision and passing. Yandle often anticipates the movement of the defense and unlocks soft areas of the ice to help the Rangers generate more scoring. But with a slew of pass-first mentality players on the ice, sometimes the work Yandle does goes unnoticed. That's not on him, nor is the blanket-blaming when people say "well, Yandle was brought in to help the power play and he hasn't done that so it's all his fault."

Things manifested all year. The same media members who fawned over Dan Girardi's toughness and Tanner Glass' presence in the locker room spit on Kevin Hayes and threw Yandle under the bus. Crab people exist everywhere.

It continued to fester and evolve all year. In March I once again tried to tackle the narratives that Yandle wasn't good enough. From that story:

Yandle's power play time, of late, has been significantly increased, and his overall TOI has jumped up as well. The Rangers are a better team when he's on the ice and, despite possession issues all year, Yandle still leads all regulars on the team (Dylan McIlrath is at the top but he's not a regular, sadly) with a 50.5% corsi.

Not only that, his scoring chance differential (-22) is the best of all regular defenseman. Not for nothing, but that he's at the top of the list at -22 is all you need to know about this defense and their problems. However, Dan Girardi is the worst on the team with a -192 mark, so, it can be so much worse.

When the Rangers' season crashed and burned in Pittsburgh the knives were already out. Yandle was too expensive. He didn't get the job done. He has to leave because the Rangers can't afford him. He never did what the Rangers thought he would do for the power play.

Here's the truth: Yandle was the Rangers most consistent defenseman this year, on both ends of the ice. Period. There's really not a debate to be had here. Yandle led the way in possession, points, opportunities created and in defense. He was one of the very few positive consistencies (because boy oh boy were there negative consistencies) on an already rocky blue line. Throw Kevin Klein into the discussion, too, but Yandle was at the top.

There's a ton of reasons why the Rangers should do everything in their power to keep Yandle, none more important than the fact that he's an elite puck-moving defenseman. (Elite and generational are two different things, so before you start throwing out names like Erik Karlsson and P.K. Subban save your breath.)

What should be the second most important thing is, well, Alain Vigneault's system. After a decade behind the bench between New York and Vancouver, Vigneault's system has pretty much stayed the same. And with the right personnel it's a brilliant system that utilizes speed and vision to break down even the most strict defenses.

The problem with Vigneault is that he A) doesn't know how to adjust his system (even minor adjustments) when teams figure out how to stop it, and B) he doesn't know when a player no longer works in the system.

"B" is the biggest problem there, because while his system is a high-flying offensive machine at its best, it is a plodding, grinding disaster at its worst. Pittsburgh did two things (TWO!) to shut down the Rangers offense. They choked the lanes for long stretch passes and they matched up their best players against the Rangers "top defensive pairing" and bottom line . Rinse, lather, repeat.

Yandle was one of the rare defenseman who could actually get those stretch passes to where they had to go. When he was on the ice with players who had speed to break through the neutral zone it was a dangerous combination. Yandle was always the guy who had the vision to break through the nonsense, even when the Rangers were at their worst.

If the Rangers moved on from Yandle (read: he walks or they trade his negotiating rights for pennies on the dollar at the draft) it would cripple really any of the offense the Rangers were getting from their blue line. Forget the fact that it would leave the Rangers with nothing despite trading Anthony Duclair, John Moore and a 1st round pick for him. Forget the fact that the Rangers would be, once again, prioritizing loyalty over the betterment of the team (assuming Yandle walks because the Rangers can't afford him thanks to the Girardi and Marc Staal contracts).

The Rangers would be hard pressed to improve without him. Tyson Barrie is a puck mover who would help replace Yandle's offense, but he's not the distributor out of the zone that Yandle is. Maybe that's because of how bad Colorado is, but it's still worth noting.

If the Rangers can't keep Yandle -- for whatever reason -- the reliance on McDonagh and even Klein to move the puck out of the zone is going to be immense. Skjei has the tools (read: the speed and skating ability) to break out of the zone and create offense with his own possession, but expecting him to be an instant replacement even from the zone breakout department is asking a lot for a rookie.

That doesn't even count the fact that Yandle would be an excellent mentor and partner for someone like Skjei. Not only would it remove any idea of Skjei turning into an instant power play quarterback -- and at this point I'm not sure why Skjei was ever talked about as being a pure offensive replacement -- but it would help shelter Skjei to season and improve this year without it being a trial by fire.

The big hurdle, of course, is Yandle can command a lot of money in the open market. At his age (he's turning 30 in September) he's ripe for one of those six-year, $7.5-million contract offers. I spoke about this at length when Dustin Byfuglein signed his five-year deal with Winnipeg.

The two sides have had "brief conversations" about Yandle's free agent status, but I haven't seen anything to indicate more than just the two sides touching base. So this might be a great time to actually sit down with him, since I'm sure Yandle's smiling ear to ear looking at all the dollar signs that come with that Byfuglein extension.

For whatever reason, people think Yandle isn't as good as Big Buff (probably because he doesn't hit all that much), but Yandle could now easily see $7 million a year for 6-8 years on the open market, which would probably price him out of New York even if the Rangers wanted to make room for him. The two sides need to hash this out and soon, unless Jeff Gorton and company have already made the decision to move on.

That was back in February where there was a possibility the Rangers would cut ties with Yandle simply to recoup some of the assets they lost in the trade for him. Gorton elected to make one more Stanley Cup run with this core, bought in for another year and won a single playoff game.

The dollar aspect of this situation was always hanging over the team's head. Gorton had to know this was going to come up in the event the Rangers weren't marching down the Canyon of Heroes at the end of the year. If Yandle likes it so much in New York -- according to everyone he loves it here -- then maybe he'd be willing to sign a $6-million deal for six years. Guys like Yandle don't deteriorate like the bigger, bruising defenseman we've become so accustomed to seeing erode on Broadway (Girardi and Wade Redden mostly), but that contract would have some risk to it, too.

Regardless, Yandle is a guy that can be productive at 36 years old. His game isn't so much speed as it is vision, and that never goes away. If you're going to risk a contract, why not risk that deal for Yandle rather than what's left on Girardi or Staal's? I think the scales of balance sit heavily in Yandle's favor here.

We've talked about the direction the Rangers are moving in a bit of late. If they try to adjust their top-four defenseman there's an opportunity to find success without Yandle. The Rangers might not need that much help at breaking out if they're not bogged down so much by under-preforming veterans. And if the bottom six truly rounds out into what it was back in 2014 (with trades/signings) then the Rangers would also have the spare breathing room of solidifying their defense.

Losing Yandle isn't a death sentence for this team. Losing Yandle because they either can't or won't deal with the defensive issues they have now would be -- at least if people think there's a Cup run coming soon. Call this the Yandle keep or dump article. Call this the Yandle report card. He was probably the Rangers most important player last year. He had one of the greatest seasons on Broadway from a defenseman since Brian Leetch wore the sweater. He was fine in his own end (despite what people are saying about him). Don't think replacing him will be easy. It can be done, but it will take a lot of work and a lot of adjustments where there's a ton of moving parts that rarely work out the way you think they will. And in the end, it would require the Rangers to re-evaluate their veterans anyway.

So it's probably easier just to keep him.