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As free agency continues to roll on and trade talks and speculation ensue, the Arizona Coyotes have remained quiet. As GM Don Maloney had said prior to the start of free agency, “(we) will wait for the right player to come at the right price” – and thus far, that is exactly how it has played out. Nonetheless, as the waiting game continues, the wheels are still turning in Maloney and the rest of the staff’s heads to try and get a winning team back out on the ice. One option that has been thrown out there for the media to chew on over the past few years has been the possibility of trading defenseman and assistant captain, Keith Yandle. However, before Maloney seriously considers trading a talented leader such as Yandle, perhaps he and head coach Dave Tippett could contemplate moving Yandle into a new hybrid role.
As of right now, the Coyotes are in need of a proven scoring forward and have an incredible amount of depth at the defenseman position. General Manager Don Maloney outlined these needs before heading into free agency.
“We know we’d like to add a scoring winger or two. We would like to add to our team speed. We’d like to be a better defending team,” said Maloney.
These needs and depth at the defenseman position could leave someone like Keith Yandle (who is set to make $5.5 million this upcoming season) as the undisputed odd man out, especially considering the amount of talent the team could get in return for him. Trading Yandle in the hopes of getting a star scoring forward is certainly a viable option and should be strongly considered. However, if Tippett could imagine simply transferring Yandle into a forward/defense hybrid position, they could already have a star forward in their midst, all while transitioning newly acquired and young players into their system.
Much like what the Winnipeg Jets have done with their star defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and what the San Jose Sharks attempted to do with Brent Burns, the Arizona Coyotes could attempt to do with Keith Yandle. He certainly has a knack for scoring, leading the team in points for the past two seasons, and his point total clearly represents a player with good hands that can transition into a scoring – and very good defensive – forward. Most importantly, Yandle can offer flexibility to a team that is attempting to work with a minimal cap and a young and up-and-coming roster.
One of the biggest and immediate beneficiaries of keeping Yandle on the team would be maintaining the much improved power play. Last season, the Coyotes improved its power play percentage from 14.79 percent in 2012 (25th in the league) to 19.86 percent, which was fourth best in the entire league and No. 1 in the Western Conference. A major contributor to those 56 converted power plays was Yandle, as he assisted in half of them (28 power play assists) and registered a point in a little more than half of them (31 total power play points).
As an even-strength forward, Yandle will already bring defensive knowledge and ability to the front lines. Whether it would be chipping the puck out of the offensive zone at the right time or his ability to successfully forecheck, Yandle has played in Tippett’s system long enough to naturally progress into a defensive minded forward who can also score. On the power play, Yandle could fall back into his natural defenseman position, keeping intact one of the main reasons why the power play was so successful this past season.
This year, the Coyotes will also add veteran forward Martin Erat and enigmatic youngster, Sam Gagner. Should Yandle move to a wing position on the top line with captain Shane Doan and Gagner, Boedker would then move back to the second line alongside center Martin Hanzal and winger Martin Erat. The line combinations are endless and constantly changing, but regardless, this move would significantly increase the team’s scoring and defensive depth at the forward position.
Something else to keep in mind is the amount of youngsters Tippett and Maloney could be attempting to integrate into their system this year. At the forward position, players like Max Domi, Brandon McMillan, Jordan Szwarz, Lucas Lessio, Henrik Samuelsson, and Tyler Gaudet are all expected to have a shot at making the team this offseason. As it stands now, the roster would only be able to work in four of them. At the defenseman position, the players attempting to make or move up in the top six – players such as Michael Stone, Connor Murphy, Chris Summers – have all already shown some signs of success at the NHL level and are now just hoping for more playing time. Defenseman Brandon Gormley, on the other hand, would appear more to be in the same position as Domi, attempting to finally make the cut as a full-timer.
When it comes to transitioning these young players to the NHL, Tippett has made no qualms as to why they are on the team.
“When you get to the NHL, you should play to win – not play to hope you can develop kids… When we put a kid in, he’s in there because he can win.”
If that is the case, the team this preseason will have to take a long hard look at which young players are truly ready to “help the team win” and which players still need improvement before making the jump. Keith Yandle, again, could become a key player in all of this.
If Yandle is moved from defense to a top line forward, he allows the team more flexibility to make the right decision based on depth and talent level rather than need. After losing Vrbata this offseason, the team was in need of a scoring winger, which could place a lot of hope and immediate pressure on a player like Max Domi to play and succeed as a top six forward right away. With Yandle transitioning to the forward position, Domi would have to move back to the third line, which would surely reduce the amount of pressure he would have faced in needing to provide as a top six forward and would increase the Coyotes scoring depth. Also, if Maloney and Tippett are looking to play young players in order to “win right away”, it could force moving Yandle around – or even away – in order to play the young defensemen that the team already knows can compete and provide for the team on a game-by-game basis. For example, at the defenseman position, young players such as Stone, Murphy, Summers and Gormley have combined to play in 123 games. Compare that to the forward position where young players like Szwarz, McMillan, Lessio, and Domi have combined only to play in 51 games.
If Yandle moves to forward, the new defensive pairings of Ekman-Larsson/Michalek, Schlemko/Stone, Murphy/Summers with Gormley as the seventh man in the rotation could allow Arizona to finally put the enormous depth they already have on defense to work. Also, with expiring contracts to Brandon Gormley, David Schlemko and Zbynek Michalek, the need to see how well the foursome of Stone, Murphy, Summers and Gormley can play now becomes imperative.
In regards to a potential trade happening in the near future, Maloney stated that during this free agency period, he “was amazed at the number of teams (he) talked with in regards to moving people, moving players and moving contracts.”
The trade possibilities could be endless for a player like Yandle and the scoring value that Arizona could get in return, while finally using the aforementioned depth on defense, would certainly make news as a “good” trade. However, instead of attempting to solve the on-ice issues through addition by subtraction, perhaps the Coyotes should work with what they already have.
Holding onto Yandle could prove to be more valuable to Arizona in more than just a tangible way. After being drafted by the Coyotes in 2005 and becoming the player that he has become while growing under the guidance and support of Tippett and his staff, Yandle’s presence in the locker room and leadership on the ice is one particular factor that cannot be measured in goals and assists. With Keith Yandle under contract for two more seasons, the option to move him out in order to get a top-line scorer will still be available to the team in the future. The window to work with what the team already has, however, is closing fast.
Moving Yandle into this hybrid role may or may not work, but if there ever was a time to try it, now would be it. The amount of depth on defense is astounding, the youth movement on offense and defense is becoming more and more impossible to ignore and the team is already attempting to integrate players like Erat and Gagner into the system. This move could allow the Arizona Coyotes to work under the salary provided to them and potentially put a playoff team back out on the ice. The Coyotes have gotten a lot of flak in recent times for their lack of moves, especially in light of how much other teams in the Western Conference have done in order to improve their rosters. However, there is one important thing to remember: when attempting to put a winning team on the ice, not all moves have to be made through trades and free agency.
Commentary by Ryne Vyles
Guardian Liberty Voice Sports Writer Covering the Arizona Coyotes