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What's Next for Keith Yandle? It's Complicated

It appears the all-time ironman among NHL defensemen will have his streak snapped in the near future as the Panthers scratch him. Finding a new home this season will prove extremely difficult.

Keith Yandle has a lot to be proud of entering what is supposed to be his 15th NHL season. Since he became a league regular in 2007-08, he leads all NHL defensemen in assists and power-play-points. Only Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson have more points. Yandle owns a top-five finish in Norris Trophy voting and has played in three All-Star Games. He’s also one of game's most colorful personalities, voted the funniest player in the league two years running in the NHL Players’ Association poll.

Yandle’s greatest accomplishment: his ironman streak. With the 2020-21 season about to commence, he sits at 866 consecutive games played. That’s the longest streak by a defenseman in NHL history, and it’s the fourth-longest streak overall. Playing all 56 games this season would jump Yandle to second all-time at 922, and he’d be on track to beat Doug Jarvis’ all-time mark of 964 next season.

But it appears Yandle’s streak will end, and not because of an injury or suspension. He's likely to open 2020-21 as a healthy scratch for the Florida Panthers. Because he can’t be placed on waivers without his permission, Yandle will remain part of Florida’s active roster rather than the taxi squad. And because he’s an able-bodied, active player scratched for a coach’s decision, his ironman streak will halt at 866 barring a last-minute change of heart from Joel Quenneville.

Since the Panthers don’t open their season until Sunday, there’s technically still time for things to change. But a report from TSN insider Frank Seravalli this week suggests we shouldn’t count on Yandle’s streak surviving the month. According to Seravalli, the Panthers have informed Yandle, 34, that “he does not factor into their plans” for the season. It’s possible he’s in the lineup for the season opener, but the expectation is he’ll be a healthy scratch sometime in the near future.

It was already becoming clear in camp that Yandle had fallen out of favor. He was moved off the top power-play unit and was operating with the secondary group of skaters without an assigned defense partner,. So why are the Panthers done with him? His power-play output was still above average as of last season. Among 60 blueliners who logged 100 or more minutes with the man advantage, he was a respectable 23rd in primary assists per 60, right between Dougie Hamilton and Shea Theodore. Yandle was 22nd in power-play points per 60, too. Not elite, but he was still PP1 material. He was even more productive at 5-on-5 last season, ranking 14th in points per 60 among 99 blueliners who played 1,000 or more minutes.

But those minutes were sheltered in Yandle's case. Among that group of 99 defensemen, only one started a smaller percentage of shifts in the defensive zone than Yandle did. His most common forwards faced were Pierre Engvall and Pat Maroon. Yandle wasn’t being tasked with handling anything close to elite competition. The Panthers were outshot and outchanced with Yandle on the ice despite him playing those insulated minutes. So the Panthers will try to roll with a more defensively disciplined D-corps this season.

Still, to blacklist a well-established, NHL-caliber puck-moving defenseman so suddenly when camp opened didn't quite add up. Is it possible the Panthers are worried about his no-movement clause when it comes to the expansion draft next season? The only way to avoid using a spot on Yandle is to nudge him out the door now.

So what happens to Yandle next? He might have trade value if the Panthers are willing to absorb some of his $6.35-million AAV for three more seasons including this one. He’s still more than capable of helping a team’s power play, but it's a question of whether he's willing to waive his NMC. A source close to the situation told the Hockey News that Yandle hasn't been the initiator on any plans to waive the NMC and that the posturing comes entirely from the Panthers front office.

When assessing fits, the Bruins are the glaringly obvious team to mention. Yandle is a Massachusetts native. Perhaps he'd be more likely to waive his NMC to go there than anywhere else. The Bruins, having lost left-shot Torey Krug to free agency, are giving Matt Grzelcyk the keys to the power play but could opt for Yandle if they preferred a veteran presence. They could hand him a lower-leverage role like the Tampa Bay Lightning did Kevin Shattenkirk last season.

As for other possible trade partners, it’s easy to see the “hockey fits,” but the financial fits look more challenging. The New York Islanders, for instance, could use a left-shot puck-mover on defense after trading Devon Toews away, but it was the lack of cap space that forced GM Lou Lamoriello to move Toews, so it’s tough to imagine there being room for Yandle. A Canadian team would be a tall order as a suitor, too, because Yandle would have to quarantine for two weeks upon crossing the border after a trade. The Canadian government granted quarantine exemptions to establish training camps, but teams are subjected to provincial rules during the regular season. It’s also tough to imagine Yandle waiving his NMC to cross the border and leave his family behind in the U.S.

Any trade, then, will be difficult to pull off. With Yandle’s defensive play declining, his contract prohibitive, the flat salary cap squeezing teams around the league and COVID-19 complicating player movement, the odds are stacked against a Yandle deal. But here’s hoping he and the Panthers find a resolution in time to keep the ironman streak alive, as unlikely as that is. 

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