Some years the trade deadline can be an episode of Let’s Make a Deal, with seemingly endless possibilities behind concealed doors. Other years, it’s much more clear. The 2012 trade deadline was focused on Rick Nash. The 2014 deadline was centered around Martin St. Louis and then-pending UFAs Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi. This season, the two names leading the discussions were Keith Yandle and Eric Staal.
For a long time earlier in the season, it seemed like the Keith Yandle leaving the Rangers at the trade deadline was inevitable. The situation seemed to shift when McDonagh went down with a concussion on February 6th, and Yandle oddly went from playing 3rd pairing minutes to leading the Rangers in ice-time nearly nightly in McDonagh’s absence.
While it was confusing to me that Yandle could be utilized so differently with one player out of the lineup, confusion wasn’t new for me in Yandle’s tenure with the Rangers so far. Simply put, many view Yandle a lot differently than I. That group includes the coaching staff, most of the Rangers’ beat and a large number of Ranger fans. Sometimes I can see what they’re thinking, Yandle’s defensive zone play can be aesthetically displeasing and if I let my mind’s eye wander I can picture his using the middle of the defensive zone to move the puck out going awry with frequency. But the thing is, the NHL keeps a record of what occurs on the ice, and the record books simply don’t permit me to think Yandle is subordinate or average or even just good.
There are (as of February 27th) 176 defensemen in the league who have played 500 or more minutes at 5-on-5. Of the 176, Yandle has the 39th best mark with 26.92 shots on goal against per 60 minutes on ice. Of course, that doesn’t differentiate the high-quality goal-mouth shots he allows from the inert, perimieter shots allowed by a crease clearing defenseman. But that disparity, should it exist (it doesn’t), doesn’t manifest itself in goals against, either. In fact, Yandle is 3rd out of 176 in goals against per 5-on-5 minute. And the two ahead of him, New Jersey’s Larsson and Greene, match their low goals-against totals with low goals-for totals, too.
Yes, of course Yandle has an advantage over most of the league as his goaltenders stop nearly 94% of all shots on goal at 5-on-5, compared to the league median of 92.7%. And there’s some usage considerations, as well, as Yandle tends to get lighter matchups. Yandle’s weighted-average on-ice opponent is on for 2.05 goals for per 60 minutes (excluding time against Yandle) compared to 2.19 for team-leading McDonagh. If I wanted to think that Yandle is defensively deficient, there’s a deficit of goals and shots against that should be there that aren’t. His easier matchups don’t come close to explaining away that deficit.
There’s also the offensive game. If one wants to draw the conclusion that Yandle is anything less than very good at supplying offense, and I have been faced with this opinion, there are again some uncomfortable facts to overcome. In terms of points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, he’s 11th among the league’s defensemen this season. In terms of raw points, his 35 puts him 3rd on the Rangers, as a defenseman playing under 20 minutes per game. Over the past three seasons, Yandle’s 140 points is tied for 4th in the league among defensemen, behind only Karlsson, Subban and Keith.
I think I’ve established the point that I think highly of Yandle, but it was still my preference that the Rangers move him in advance of the deadline. This is largely because it seems inevitable that the Rangers are going to use him as a third pairing defenseman unless one of McDonagh or Staal goes down, except when they’re trailing in a game. And I don’t think the Rangers are good enough this season to forgo the trade return they would get from trading a player with such a resume in order to keep such a specialized defenseman for a playoff run.
That’s not the direction the apparently pot-committed Rangers went. Instead they picked up Eric Staal from the Hurricanes for two second round picks and Finnish prospect Aleksi Saarela. Once the Rangers decided not to trade Yandle, getting Eric was a move I could get on board with.
Before Eric’s last contract expired, I fantasized about getting him to play alongside his defenseman brother. Now I see Eric, 31, as a potential mistake of a contract and I fantasize about a day when Marc doesn’t eat $5.7 million of the Rangers’ cap space.
Strictly as a rental, Eric is an attractive piece to add, though. His NMC created a limited market, which kept the price down. He’s played center most of his career, but has played a lot of wing recently, which is of obvious benefit with Stepan, Brassard and Hayes already down the middle. Eric’s been an effective possession driver with the Canes, posting a 55.2 CF% over the past three seasons, and 54.0% away from Jordan Staal, his lowest mark when separated from any one teammate (both on the ice together resulted in a 59.8% mark). This season, Eric is down in both shooting percentage (6.3%) and shots on goal per game (2.52), resulting in only 10 goals so far this season. Neither input particularly concerns me. Shooting percentage can be fickle, and shots are being put on goal with him on the ice — it’s just not him.
With the Rangers set on adding at the deadline, the Staal acquisition was a no-brainer. I’m not fully on board with the decision to add itself, but I get it. The East’s playoff bracket will not be lined up and down with teams that incite fear in me. I hope it’s more of a farewell tour type of run, and the Rangers are proactive in transitioning towards more of a future focus, instead of gradually accepting it as the possibility of winning now slowly slides off their fingertips. As Branch Rickey would say, it’s better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late and the Rangers have a lot of players depreciating in value and little coming up to replace them when they can no longer fulfill their current roles. If they choose to take it that way, they could try to package Eric’s rights with Marc and find the Staals a caring new home. And they could conceivably work themselves into a sign-and-trade with Yandle as they are the only team that can give him an eight-year contract, should the bidding gets there (which it might, looking at the UFA market).