It is simply the question that is being asked of Jeff Gorton on a near-daily basis:
Will he or won’t he?
Specifically, the query posed to the New York Rangers’ general manager is whether he can—or has the appetite—to sign pending unrestricted free agent defenseman Keith Yandle.
To hear his coach and teammates talk about him, Yandle provides a vital element to a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
“I like him not only on the rush and only the power play, but he does a real good job of breaking the puck out for us and helping us come out (of the defensive) zone clean,” Alain Vigneault said after the Rangers’ nationally televised 5-2 win over the Bruins on Mar. 23 at the Garden.
In the game, Yandle had two assists in 22 minutes of ice time.
“He’s able to beat that first forechecker and make that pass where we can come out with speed,” Vigneault said. “He’s really playing hard and well for us right now.”
Entering the final three games of March—Mar. 26 in Montreal, Mar. 27 at the Garden against Pittsburgh, and Mar. 31 in Carolina; a game that marks Eric Staal’s return to Raleigh after being traded to the Rangers from the only NHL team he’s ever known on Feb. 28—Yandle is tied with Derek Stepan for third on the team with 42 points. His 37 assists are a team high, and he, Mats Zuccarello and J.T. Miller are tied for the team lead in games played with 74 each.
Against Boston, Yandle recorded primary assists on the Rangers’ first two goals—both on the power play—in a three minutes and two second span of the first period. On the strength of those goals, the Rangers went into the first intermission with a 2-0 lead.
The Rangers finished the game 2-for-6 on the power play.
“He understands the importance of passing on the power play,” said Stepan, who scored the second of the Rangers’ two power play goals. Zuccarello had the game-opening tally 8:37 into the first. “When he makes a pass, it’s right on the tape and it’s to a guy that is in a scoring area.
“That’s something that isn’t easy and he’s able to do it really well.”
So it would seem like re-signing Yandle would be a high priority. But salary cap implications and roster construction may make extending him difficult.
According to industry website www.generalfanager.com, the Rangers have 22 players signed to $54.150 million worth of contracts for the 2016-17 season. Along with Yandle, Staal, Dominic Moore, Viktor Stalberg, Dan Boyle and Antti Raanta are unrestricted free agents. It is likely that Boyle will not return, as he told the Record of Hackensack in November he is considering retirement due to family considerations.
“Nothing is for sure,” Boyle told the Record. “For some guys, it’s physical. Physically, I feel fine. It’s mentally [with] having kids and being away.”
Boyle is in the second year of a two-year, $9 million contract signed on July 1, 2014. His deal is relatively cap friendly, as are Stalberg’s ($1.1 million) and Moore’s ($1.5 million). The savings on those three expiring deals should equal $7.1 million.
Which should be enough to sign Yandle to a long term deal.
Ah, but the rub involves restricted free agents Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller and Dylan McIlrath, all of whom will be looking for new deals. Also, it is significant to factor in NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly’s estimation at the Board of Governors meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., earlier this month that the salary cap ceiling will rise to $74 million for next season. The cap ceiling for the 2015-16 season is $71.4 million.
So Gorton will be tasked with navigating a cap which could be tighter than previously anticipated.
“You’ve got to find ways to win and I thought we did a good job from start to finish. It was a well-played game by our whole group and it’s a big win,” Yandle said. “Any way you can find ways to win, it’s big.’
You can follow NHL writer Denis P. Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.