Keith Yandle sat and watched while the Philadelphia Flyers lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night. The healthy scratch ended his streak of 989 consecutive games played, the longest in NHL history. Benching the respected veteran has sparked some heavy criticism directed toward the Flyers, especially from former NHL players like Jeremy Roenick.
Yandle has played 16 NHL seasons with the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes, the New York Rangers, the Florida Panthers, and the Flyers. He broke the “Iron Man” record in January when he played his 965th consecutive game, passing the mark previously held by Doug Jarvis. While the decision to bench Yandle was undoubtedly tough for the organization, it was also completely justified and overdue. The open position in the lineup allowed Ronnie Attard to make his NHL debut, which is a higher priority for the Flyers than an individual player record.
Yandle Struggling with Flyers
General manager Chuck Fletcher’s decision to sign Yandle in July seemed logical. The Flyers acquired an affordable power-play specialist who already had close relationships with Kevin Hayes and other veteran players on the team. His previous experience as an assistant captain aligned with Fletcher’s goal to overhaul the roster and add leadership and character to a dressing room that desperately needed better structure during the 2020-21 season.
The move has proven to be a failure. Yandle’s expected goals for percentage (xGF%) is a lowly 40.44 in 2021-22. He has been a liability on the third defensive pair, despite extremely favorable usage in the offensive zone. He hasn’t added value with the man advantage, as the Flyers currently own the least efficient power-play unit in the NHL.
Fletcher’s intention to add leadership and stability has failed in an overall sense. The Flyers occupy the last-place spot in the Metropolitan Division, and they will miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1992-93 and 1993-94. The team has demonstrated a glaring lack of resiliency throughout the year.
Yandle’s spot in the lineup for the first 67 games of 2021-22 didn’t come based on merit as a useful hockey player. Interim coach Mike Yeo’s attempts to build a level of accountability couldn’t truly come to fruition if a veteran was in the lineup based on an individual streak when younger players with more to offer the team didn’t get the chance to play.
Cam York, the top prospect in the organization, made his season debut on Jan. 4 against the Anaheim Ducks while the roster was decimated by injuries and absences related to Covid-19. He quickly proved he was capable of handling the pace of the NHL level, but the Flyers demoted him back to the American Hockey League (AHL) in early February. They waited until March 10 to recall him. As a left-handed blueliner who is also best utilized with opportunities on the power play, he has been blocked from playing time by the organization’s perceived obligation to keep Yandle in the lineup.
York has also played parts of his 25 NHL games this season on the right side of the third pair with Yandle. It is not beneficial for a rookie defenseman to play on an unfamiliar side with a partner who is no longer playing at an NHL-caliber level. The development of a top prospect should supersede a streak for a veteran player in his first year with the organization.
Flyers Don’t Owe Yandle
Former Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville did not consider Yandle one of the top-six defensemen on his team before the opening night of the 2020-21 season. According to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet, Florida’s “players basically revolted” against the idea of scratching the puck-moving blueliner. At that point, he sat 98 games behind Jarvis for the consecutive games record. The Panthers ultimately played him in all 56 regular-season games. They benched him for three games during their opening-round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which does not impact consecutive game streaks. They demonstrated his lack of value within the organization by buying out his contract after the season.
Shortly after the Flyers signed Yandle, Bill Meltzer spoke on the Flyers Daily podcast about how the consecutive game streak shouldn’t factor into lineup decisions and that the issue was likely discussed between the organization and the player during the negotiations. However, the Flyers allowed Yandle to stay in the lineup long enough to break the streak despite his ineffective play.
The organization’s decision was largely based on fear of upsetting the players as a group. It shouldn’t have been the case before Yandle passed Jarvis, and it certainly shouldn’t have been the case afterward. The Flyers finally decided to sit him in favor of the newly-signed Attard, prioritizing the correct hockey decision over the preference of the players on the team looking out for their friend.
Yeo spoke frankly about the situation on Saturday and said, “When you make a decision like this, it’s an organizational decision.” If it was the organization’s influence above Yeo to keep Yandle in the lineup previously, they tied the hands of their interim coach by preventing him from putting the most competitive lineup on the ice during his short tenure as the bench boss.
Honoring Yandle’s Accomplishments
Yandle deserves praise for his durability and his presence as an excellent teammate. Just before breaking the record in January, he humbly credited his parents for showing him the value of hard work and loyalty in professional settings. He has never given indications that he himself has pushed coaches or any other members of NHL organizations to protect the streak, and his own honorable work ethic earned him such a fabulous reputation among teammates and across the league.
Hayes lauded Yandle during a heartfelt postgame press conference. He spoke highly of what his fellow Massachusetts native brings to the team in an intangible sense, calling him a “role model” for other players. However, his comments also gave clear and professional acceptance of Saturday night’s lineup as a business decision, even though he openly didn’t agree with it.
Yandle’s achievements should influence hockey fans and everyone in NHL circles to hold him in high regard, but they shouldn’t influence the Flyers to make decisions that aren’t in the best interest of their success on the ice. Benching a struggling 35-year-old in a lost season in favor of a younger and more able player was never meant to be disrespectful. It was an obvious hockey decision that was long overdue.
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Colin Newby is a freelance writer from Delaware County, PA covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. He is an encyclopedia of useless sports knowledge with an uncanny ability to rattle off Flyers goaltending stats from 2004 and every Stanley Cup winner during his lifetime. The depths of his knowledge stem from spending his entire life following the Flyers and the NHL, from fan favorites like the “Legion of Doom” and Claude Giroux to forgotten journeymen like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. He joined the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association (PHWA) in 2022.
Colin also covers the Philadelphia Eagles and works for 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia.