Nobody divides the Coyotes fan base quite like defenseman Keith Yandle.
One faction loves his ability to ignite the offense with stretch passes, up-ice rushes and power-play prowess. The other faction wants to ship him out of town for a top-end scorer because they can’t live with his defensive liabilities.
Remember the blunt assessment of Yandle’s game revealed in ESPN columnist Scott Burnside’s lengthy piece on the selection of the United States Olympic roster? Remember how Nashville GM and selection committee member David Poile called Yandle a player with whom the reward never seems to exceed the risk?
The Coyotes’ just-concluded four-game road trip was a sparkling example of the risk and reward in Yandle’s game.
He had a pair of assists to stake the Coyotes to a 2-0 lead in Washington after two periods. Then he screened goalie Mike Smith and failed to block a shot from the point that found its way into the net. The goal energized the Capitals in a 3-2 win and drew the ire of coach Dave Tippett in his post-game remarks.
"Sometimes other things happen and that’s part of the game," said Yandle, who is second on the team and tied for fourth among NHL defensemen with 45 points. "It’s over. The game’s over and I really don’t pay too much attention to it; just kind of move on to the next day and keep going."
Yandle followed the Washington game with an assist in a 4-3 win in Tampa, but he also fell down to allow Tyler Johnson’s shorthanded goal and finished a minus-1 in the game.
He had an assist in a 3-1 win over Florida, but added an assist of the dubious kind in his hometown when his careless clearing pass found Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara at the point in the first period on Thursday. Chara’s goal through a screen staked the Bruins to a 1-0 lead and set the tempo for the game.
Comparison of remaining schedules for 5 teams
competing for final 2 Western Conference playoff berths (calculated prior to Friday’s games)
Opp. win pct.
The Coyotes’ reasoning in keeping Yandle around is clear when you watch those otherwordly offensive talents.
"He’s a unique player; a player that can create and be our leading scorer," Tippett said. "He can make things happen when you’re down in a game, and he’s been our top power play guy."
"That’s the prototype NHL defenseman today. That’s how you defend now and that’s the kind of guy you have to have in today’s high-speed game," added assistant Jim Playfair, who coaches the defense. "Yeah, he got out of the way of a shot in Washington and he turned one over in Boston, but 9 times out of 10 he makes the right play, so when he turns some over, that’s the risk you’re going to live with in a player like that."
Two seasons ago, that was fine because the Coyotes had the players around Yandle to mask or protect his defensive shortcomings and sometimes-questionable decision-making.
But on a team that struggles to score goals, Yandle’s mistakes have been more glaring. Some of that is on the aforementioned offense for its lack of even-strength productivity. Some of is on the forwards who aren’t as effective in puck possession or defensive zone coverage as they were two seasons ago. Some of it is on Yandle’s partner, Derek Morris, who has been in and out of the lineup with injury and personal issues and hasn’t been as effective since early in the season. Some of it was on goalie Mike Smith earlier this season.
But some of the issues are on Yandle himself. While it’s not an entirely reliable statistic because it is dependent on the other players on the ice, Yandle is a team-low minus-19 this season, which ranks 828th in the league out of 847 players.
Remember, Yandle and Morris do not typically face other team’s top lines, which can lead to greater minus ratings. That distinction falls to the top defensive pairing of Zbynek Michalek and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Clearly, there is room for improvement — and there are greater expectations, a higher standard for a guy who wears the ‘A’ on his jersey and logs such heavy minutes.
"Believe me, when players make mistakes they’re the first ones to know that they should have done something differently," Tippett said. "We need his dynamic side, his offensive side, but there’s times when he’s got to dig in and defend better. It’s basically playoff mode for us. That’s where we’re going to be for the whole stretch run."
Yandle is aware of the criticism of his game, but like any veteran must, he shrugs it off.
"I just try to go out and play my game and do what I can do to help my team win," said Yandle, who hasn’t missed a game the past five seasons. "I think if you just try to be consistent; try to help your team win games, that’s all you can ask for."
Captain Shane Doan said Yandle handles the criticism, the highs and the lows, like a pro.
"It takes courage to do what he does," Doan said. "There’s an element of just being able to let go of things when something goes wrong and make the next play, and he does it all the time."
Because of his style and size, Yandle is not expected to be a physical player. The Coyotes staff wants him to use his feet, an active stick and his quickness to be a better defender. But a staff that prides itself on being able to win 1-0 and 2-1 games also wants to see him make smarter decisions and simpler plays in certain situations. And yes, they want him to block shots because, as an assistant captain, that shows a commitment level that bleeds into the rest of the team.
Playfair believes Yandle can and will achieve that level of defensive play on a more consistent basis, while he continues to dazzle with those unique and rare offensive gifts.
"The period of hockey he played prior to the Olympics for a 15- to 20-game stretch is the best 200-foot game he’s played since I’ve been here, and it’s a testament to what he can do when he puts his mind to both sides of the game," Playfair said. "If we hadn’t see that block of games before the Olympic announcements, we’d be concerned. But that’s not a short stretch of games, so you know that’s what he is capable of doing. That’s what you expect.
"Obviously, we need to see more consistency from Keith in some areas of his game, so that’s what I’m focusing on getting him back to."