On Saturday morning, eight-and-a-half hours before the Flyers faced off against the Toronto Maple Leafs, veteran defenseman Keith Yandle hit the ice for practice with a smile on his face, just as he always does before a game.
But this skate was different. For the first time since March 22, 2009, Yandle is poised to be a healthy scratch
Yandle, 35, and his historic 989-game iron man streak will end Saturday with recently signed college prospect Ronnie Attard replacing Yandle in the lineup and set to make his NHL debut. Yandle is a lot of things — a 16-year NHL veteran, his teammates’ favorite teammate, and a mainstay on the Flyers’ third defensive pairing this season. However, he’s not aloof to the Flyers’ current roster situation.
“You know it towards the end of the year when you’re signing young guys and getting free agents out of college that they’re gonna give them a chance to play,” Yandle said. “You’ve got to respect that out of the business side of it, what they’re trying to do here.”
On Jan. 25 against the New York Islanders, Yandle broke Doug Jarvis’ iron man record by playing in his 965th consecutive game. Throughout his career, which included stops with the Arizona Coyotes, the New York Rangers, the Florida Panthers, and now the Flyers, Yandle played through injuries and evaded COVID-19 to keep his streak intact.
But Yandle has struggled defensively this season, posting a league-worst minus-39. While Yandle had maintained his third-pairing spot primarily alongside Nick Seeler, interim coach Mike Yeo took away his power-play responsibilities recently, opting to try out Cam York on one unit and Travis Sanheim and Ivan Provorov on the other.
Right-shot Attard will slot in on the right side next to Seeler. Despite the influx of youth to the Flyers’ roster, effectively eliminating Yandle’s spot in the lineup for now, he has handled the situation with class.
“I’ve seen it at different times, where sometimes older players can be sort of jealous,” Yeo said. “I don’t want to say that they are trying to sabotage the young players, but certainly they feel threatened by them. And Keith has been absolutely nothing but supportive, professional with those guys.”
As the streak comes to an end, Yandle spent time reflecting — “and I’m not really a guy that reflects too much,” Yandle said — on his career with his wife, Kristyn, his brother, Brian, and his parents, Buddy and Patti.
At the forefront of those memories are his teammates that have gone to bat for him over the years to help keep the streak alive. Much like Yandle himself, his Flyers teammates were disappointed to learn that the streak would come to an end on Saturday.
“I told guys, it’s part of the business,” Yandle said. “You’ve got to understand what the team’s doing here. But having the guys and their support and the words that they’ve said to me, it’s been really, really special.”
Arizona Coyotes forward Phil Kessel is now the NHL’s active leading ironman, closing in on Yandle’s streak with 968 consecutive games played. Although Yandle comes out of the lineup on Saturday, his season isn’t over. He’ll have 14 more opportunities to compete for a spot in the lineup before the year comes to an end.
Even if he doesn’t crack the game-day lineup, Yandle can still make an impact on the team, especially on the young players looking to become NHL regulars.
“My mindset is to get better in practice, work on things and try to get back in the lineup and help the team win games,” Yandle said. “I know it’s the end of the year and we’re out of it, but building something for these guys next year where you can go into the summer feeling good about yourselves and feeling good about the team, try to set yourself up, I think that will be my goal.”
After battling a nagging injury this week, goalie Carter Hart (42 games, 3.04 goals against average, .909 save percentage) will start in net against the Leafs. ... Winger Travis Konecny is dealing with an illness and will come out of the lineup. Hayden Hodgson, who was slated to be a healthy scratch, will take Konecny’s place. In four games with the Flyers this season, Hodgson has one goal and one assist, both notched in his NHL debut on March 24 against the St. Louis Blues.