Betting On A Keith Yandle Bounceback

Ryan Suter has the massive contract. P.K. Subban has a star quality to him. Zdeno Chara has the track record of success. Keith Yandle? He toils away for the unexciting and defensive-minded Phoenix Coyotes. Nevertheless, the 26-year-old Coyotes blueliner is poised to outperform all of them for fantasy purposes.

It must be said… No fantasy owner REALLY wants to draft or acquire a Phoenix Coyotes player. The squad isn’t flashy. It doesn’t feature an explosive offensive attack. Veteran netminder Mike Smith came out of nowhere to post a Masterson Trophy-nominated performance in goal in 2011-12. Oliver-Ekmann-Larsson is an up-and-coming defenseman who plays the game with the kind of maturity and poised usually not seen from someone who just turned 21 years of age. Scouts and analysts peg him as a future Norris Trophy candidate who can affect the game in a variety of ways. However, by no means is he marketable star. Radim Vrbata led the squad in goals last year. Ray Whitney paced the team in points in 2011-12. Martin Hanzal’s not going to start burying shots like he’s Steven Stamkos anytime soon. That tells you everything you need to know about the team’s uninspiring forward corps. They lack dynamic scorers, and that makes it undesirable to target Coyotes in fantasy.

Those who counted on Yandle to be a core member of their respective squads in 2011-12 were likely left disappointed by his on-ice production. Sure, he played in 82 games for the third consecutive campaign. But after a breakout 2010-11 season in which Yandle racked up 59 points, 11 goals and 23 points on the power play, fantasy owners expected him to produce like a high-end No. 1 defenseman. He didn’t. Not even close.

Yandle’s owners were forced to watch in frustration as he managed just 43 points. Philadelphia’s Kimmo Timonen matched his season point total. By scoring just one power-play goal apiece, Calgary’s Anton Babchuk and Minnesota’s Marco Scandella outpaced Yandle in that category. It was a frustrating campaign for a defenseman who many considered to be a high-end blueliner for years to come.

But here are two critical questions:

1. Aside from a serious injury that keeps Yandle off the ice or limits him on it, is it really likely he’ll perform any worse over his next full season?

2. Given his role as the squad’s power-play quarterback, isn’t it reasonable to assume Yandle will rack up more goals and assists on the man advantage than he did in 2011-12?

The Coyote power play isn’t formidable. The team’s defensive-oriented style of play won’t lead to gaudy offensive numbers for many players on the roster. However, Yandle’s offensive zone start percentage (55 percent in 2011-12) and ability to produce points at even strength (only Norris Trophy-winning blueliner Erik Karlsson totaled more goals in 5X5 situations) point to the right combination of talent and opportunity to yield high-end fantasy production. He’s a proven performer who will rely on other Phoenix d-men to play tougher minutes and assume greater defensive responsibility. While he’d be better served to play elsewhere, his less-than-ideal situation shouldn’t hinder Yandle moving forward. There’s no way a player of his caliber will fail to notch at least a few power play goals this season.

As I’ve stated before, there aren’t many NHL blueliners worthy of being deemed “elite fantasy options” on an annual basis. There’s very little certainty regarding year-over-year production at the position. Dustin Byfuglien is the lone defenseman to post a 50-point campaign in each of the past two years, and he’s not even the top-ranked fantasy defenseman. That’s why it’s so important for owners to look for bargains at the position. Reaching for big-time producers coming off banner campaigns is often a fool’s errand.

While it’s far from a certainty, there is reason to believe Yandle can achieve top-10 status at the position over his next full season. More importantly, he should be available at a reasonable price given his underwhelming campaign in 2011-12. The talent is there, and the Coyotes have put him in a position to succeed in the past. Now all he needs is a little more luck, especially on the man advantage.

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