When the New York Rangers acquired puck-moving defenseman Keith Yandle from the Arizona Coyotes last season in exchange (primarily) for Anthony Duclair, John Moore, and a first-round draft pick, the hefty price they paid underscored the fact that this was a “win now” move. With the team atop the NHL during the regular season, the offensively-gifted Yandle was seen as the final piece that could bring the Rangers the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1994.
The Blueshirts, however, fell just short, losing Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final at home to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Yandle is still with the club this season before he is set to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer.
The Rangers’ postseason failure last season, combined with the lack of a marked improvement in their power play, has raised the question of whether or not the Rangers got the player they wanted. Throw in Duclair’s strong start to this season with the Coyotes, and it’s easy to see why some may view the trade as a failure.
Yandle Producing for Rangers
That being said, Yandle has actually performed pretty well this season. Following his return to Arizona — a game his Rangers won 4-1 — he has eight points (one goal and seven assists) in 14 games so far this season. That leads Rangers defensemen and is good for fifth on the team overall.
Furthermore, he has had a hand in three of the team’s six power play goals (one goal and two assists), lending credence to the notion that perhaps head coach Alain Vigneault should consider regularly using Yandle for the full two minutes on power plays.
In fact, not only has Yandle been better than some might perceive, but he is really the Rangers’ best offensive defenseman since the great Brian Leetch. Now, in no way am I suggesting that Yandle is close to the caliber of player that Leetch was. He is, though, the best offensive threat and most dynamic player New York has had on the blue line since Leetch.
Yandle is on pace for 47 points this season, which would be the most for a Rangers defenseman since Tom Poti had 48 in the best season of his career in 2002-03. After that high point though, Poti’s production would decline and his defensive play would become very shaky, leading to him becoming a regular target of booing and derision from the Madison Square Garden crowd before his ultimate departure from the club after the 2005-06 season.
Yandle, meanwhile, has eclipsed the 50-point plateau three times in his career, something Poti never did. I would bet that most Rangers fans, even those dissatisfied with Yandle, would easily concede that he is a far superior player and greater offensive threat than Poti was. With a couple of good games, Yandle could be back on a 50-point pace, with the chance to become the first Rangers defenseman to reach the mark since Leetch did with 55 points in 2001-02.
Poti’s 48-point season stands as the club’s best offensive production from a blue-liner since Leetch. That was over a decade ago, which highlights the significance of what Yandle brings to the table. It also makes one (me, at least) want to look back at the best offensive seasons from Rangers defensemen since then. So without further ado, here are the five best seasons since Poti’s one very good year for the club:
1. Ryan McDonagh: 43 points in 2013-14
McDonagh’s 14-goal, 29-assist season in 2013-14 is the best offensive production the Rangers have gotten out of a defenseman in the post-lockout era (that being the 2004-05 lockout). At 24 years of age, McDonagh built on two-plus strong seasons in the NHL with the Rangers by adding offense to his game. He thrived under Vigneault, who in his first season as New York’s bench boss gave McDonagh more freedom offensively than predecessor John Tortorella ever did. McDonagh helped lead the Rangers to a surprise appearance in the Stanley Cup Final that season before they fell to the Los Angeles Kings in five games.
2. Michael Del Zotto: 41 points in 2011-12
Like Poti, Michael Del Zotto had some good moments for the Rangers before his uneven play — particularly on the defensive end — led to him being disliked by many fans (the nickname “Del Zaster” stands out) and eventually being shipped out of town in the 2013-14 season for defenseman Kevin Klein. Del Zotto, though, had the best season of his career in 2011-12, tallying 10 goals and 31 assists while playing fairly solid defense. He finished the season at +20 and helped the Rangers claim the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference and advance to the Eastern Conference Final. The fact that he did this under the aforementioned Tortorella makes it all the more remarkable.
3. Michal Rozsival: 40 points in 2006-07
There is a trend here, as Rozsival is yet another example of a defenseman who shined at times but performed poorly enough at others to earn the wrath of the Garden faithful. Before those days however, Rozsival was really the Rangers’ best defenseman for a few years, with his most productive year coming in 2006-07 when he tallied 10 goals and 30 assists. The Rangers advanced to the second round of the playoffs that season, marking their first playoff series victory since 1997.
4. Michal Rozsival: 38 points in 2007-08
Rozsival’s strong run with the Rangers continued into the following season, where he posted a career-high 13 goals along with 25 assists. The Rangers again advanced to the second round of the playoffs, but no further. After this season, Rozsival’s production began to decline, and he was ultimately dealt to the then-Phoenix Coyotes in the 2010-11 season in exchange for forward Wojtek Wolski.
5. Michael Del Zotto: 37 points in 2009-10
The aforementioned Del Zotto burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old rookie in 2009, putting up 9 goals and 28 assists to lead all New York defensemen in scoring that year. He struggled defensively however, finishing the year at -20. The Rangers also fell just short of the playoffs that season — the only time they have missed the playoffs since the 2004-05 lockout.
Looking back, these numbers and these players, besides the all-around solid McDonagh, are not all that impressive in the grand scheme of things. It’s actually somewhat incredible that the Rangers have been a consistent playoff team for all these years without ever having an exceptionally dynamic player on the back end.
While McDonagh remains with the team and is now captain, he did not build on his 2013-14 offensive outburst, as he followed with just 33 points last season (though he did miss 11 games). So far this season he has no goals and only three assists in 14 games. He does seem to be hitting his stride based on his past few games, but right now he does not stand out as anything close to a 50-point threat from the blue line.
Yandle is the one player on the Rangers’ roster who does, and based on the limited offensive production of Rangers’ defensemen over the past decade-plus, that is not something to be overlooked. The Rangers did fail in their Stanley Cup run with Yandle last season, and he is certainly not a Hall of Fame player at this point, but he is pretty clearly the team’s best offensive defenseman since Brian Leetch, and perhaps someone from whom the best is yet to come.