Whether It's Keith Yandle or Jason Spezza, It's Never Personal

Coaches like winning hockey games more than anything. And that was the only thing Joel Quenneville had in mind when he considered scratching reigning NHL ironman Yandle.
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If you look at Marcel Dionne’s career stats line, you’ll see that in 1988-89 he played nine games with the Denver Rangers, scoring no goals and 13 assists. That’s because Dionne was so frustrated by being scratched by New York Rangers coach Michel Bergeron that he asked to be sent down to the minors. Think about that for a second. Marcel Dionne, slam-dunk Hall of Famer and one of the most dynamic players to ever play the game, finished his career playing in front of 2,000 people a night in hockey’s backwaters.

We say this because Keith Yandle of the Florida Panthers not only played in his team’s season opener Sunday night, he scored a goal in Florida’s 5-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. (We digress here, but is it the weirdest thing ever that the Panthers and Arizona Coyotes might lead the league in attendance this season?) It capped a rather difficult week for Yandle, who appeared to have fallen out of favor with the Panthers and was in jeopardy of being a healthy scratch for the season opener. That would have put an end to Yandle’s current ironman streak, which stood at 866 consecutive games.

There had been a fair bit of talk about how coach Joel Quenneville and GM Bill Zito were doing Yandle dirty, disrespecting a veteran player who deserved a better fate. But you know, unless there’s a little-known clause in Yandle’s contract that forces the Panthers to play him in every game to keep his streak alive, nothing the Panthers did was personal. The Panthers opted to play Yandle, which means he’s 97 games in arrears of Doug Jarvis for the NHL’s all-time ironman record.

Speaking of Jarvis, care to guess how his streak ended? Healthy scratch. Garry Unger is No. 2 on the list at 914 games, a streak that was also ended with a healthy scratch. No. 3 on the list is Steve Larmer, whose streak ended as the result of a contract dispute with the Blackhawks. Al MacNeil was the coach who ended Garry Unger’s streak and Jack Evans pulled the plug on Jarvis’ run. And like Quenneville, if and when he does sit Yandle out, the reason they did it is because it’s their job to put the lineup on the ice they think has the best chance of winning every single game. Or as one veteran hockey observer once told me: “I have yet to meet the coach who doesn’t want to win.”

Now, if you want to take issue with Quenneville and question his judgment in considering holding Yandle out, that’s fair game. After all, with Yandle logging the most power-play time on the roster, the Panthers’ were 10th in the league with the extra man last season and second in 2018-19. But Quenneville is also the highest-paid coach in the league because he’s one of the best ever at knowing which players are going and which ones are not. If anyone is under the impression that there is anything personal about Quenneville’s handling of Yandle, they have no idea what Quenneville is all about. Joel Quenneville was contemplating scratching Keith Yandle from the lineup because he didn’t think Yandle gave them the best chance of winning. Full stop. Forget about wanting evaluate the team’s younger defensemen. The Panthers have been plagued by terrible starts in recent years and Quenneville would have been desperate to win every game possible. And that’s why Quenneville changed his mind and decided to play Yandle. It’s also probably why Yandle will be in the lineup again Tuesday night to extend his streak to 868.

“It never is personal in my business,” Quenneville said after the game. “I always find that ice time and delegation of ice time creates a lot of that animosity and appreciation. Being a former player, we all have an understanding that everybody wants to play more. As a coach, one of the ways of being fair and rewarding productivity and competitiveness, is how you delegate ice time. We need everybody to push each other and that’s a factor.”

There has been some speculation about there perhaps being other forces at play here, that the Panthers are possibly using Yandle's streak to get him to waive his no-move clause so they can deal him or make him available for the expansion draft. That's a stretch. Does anyone think Quenneville would sign off on a move like that if he really believed Yandle could help them now? And even if this is the case, again, not personal. Not a great look, but not personal.

Earlier in the day, another respected veteran in Jason Spezza was placed on waivers by the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs are, of course, hoping he’ll sneak through and he likely will. You might recall that last season, then-Leafs coach Mike Babcock held Spezza out of the season opener. Say what you want about Babcock and his ego, but he held Spezza out of the lineup, not to embarrass him, but because he did not think Spezza gave his team the best chance to win. As much as Babcock wants to be the smartest guy in the room, he likes winning hockey games even more.

It was nothing personal with Yandle and it’s nothing personal with Spezza. It never is.

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