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Phil Kessel is the NHL's New Ironman

Move over, Robert Downey Jr. Phil Kessel is the new Avenger in town, taking over the reign as the NHLer with the most active games played after Keith Yandle was scratched. Can Kessel break the all-time record?
Phil Kessel

Phil Kessel is the NHL’s new active ironman. 

It’s a fact that became all too clear when the Philadelphia Flyers scratched Keith Yandle after 989 consecutive games. But the “ironman” moniker comes with something else - the necessity to uphold on-ice performance, not only physical health.

While many disagreed with Philadelphia Flyers head coach Mike Yeo, criticizing his decision to scratch Yandle in favor of rookie Ronnie Attard, Yandle’s performance had been on the decline for some time, and Yeo chose organizational success over personal popularity.

“It’s important that we get some young players in,” Flyers head coach Mike Yeo said at the time. “We have to have an eye on the future.”

Yandle’s performance this season could have warranted time in the press box prior to this moment, and might have already come if not for his streak. Yandle has the league’s worst +/-, and is a far cry offensively from his 62-point season in 2018-2019 as a member of the Florida Panthers. This year the veteran has a lone goal.

Yandle will enter this off-season as an unrestricted free agent, with no guarantee a team will come calling to sign the 35-year-old.

With Yandle’s streak over, the torch has passed to another pending unrestricted free agent, Phil Kessel.

Kessel cannot catch Yandle this season. Should he play out the year without missing a game, Kessel will reach 980 consecutive games. He’ll need to play the first 10 games of the 2022-2023 season to break Yandle’s mark.

Kessel’s streak however, could have already ended were it not for the assistance of his NHL franchise, a contrast from Yandle’s treatment in Philadelphia. When Kessel’s girlfriend Sandra went into labor on March 9, Kessel was prepared to let his streak end to be present for the birth of his first child. Instead, the Coyotes dressed Kessel, played him for a single shift, and then chartered a flight from Detroit to Phoenix in time for Kessel to welcome his daughter to the world.

The disparate treatment of two veteran players raises the question: what is an NHL team’s responsibility in helping veteran players maintain, or achieve a milestone or record?

In 2011, Mike Modano experienced a similar fate to Yandle. Sitting at 1499 career games, Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock made Modano a healthy scratch to close out the season and his career, preventing the Hockey Hall of Fame member from reaching a significant milestone. That season, the Red Wings had already locked up their playoff positioning.

This year, the Philadelphia Flyers have watched their playoff hopes come and go, and Keith Yandle saw his active NHL record disappear as well.

As Mike Yeo stated in his decision to scratch Yandle, "This is what we feel is in the best interest of the Philadelphia Flyers going forward.”

In Yandle’s place that night, Attard made his NHL debut. Attard, a third-round pick of the Flyers in 2019, recently signed with the Flyers after his junior season in the NCAA with Western Michigan. In his debut, Attard went minus-4. Was it too early for him to make the jump? Perhaps, but Yeo did what he believed made the most sense for his hockey club.

Each franchise, the Arizona Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers, did what they thought was best for their club. Ultimately, neither had a responsibility to help Kessel or Yandle maintain their ironman streaks. Arizona, who is in desperate need of talent and bodies for next season, perhaps wanted to show the league they are a team that takes care of their players, no matter what. That could involve making an offer to Kessel, who is still a productive top-six forward, to retain his services. Philadelphia, on the other hand, has no interest in retaining Yandle, and could look to jettison more veteran players in the off-season to begin a rebuild.

As for Kessel’s future, he will have options to continue playing next season. He could remain in Arizona for more money, or choose to go elsewhere on a team friendly contract. That might mean a return to past stomping grounds including Boston or Pittsburgh. If cap space permits, he could also join a contender looking to retool like Colorado or Florida.

Wherever he ends up, Kessel will become the new NHL consecutive games played record holder 10 games into the 2022-2023 season; that is, unless his play declines and he finds himself a healthy scratch.

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