There's an unfortunate cost to becoming an NHL ironman

·4 min read

Keith Yandle set an NHL record Tuesday night on Long Island, skating in his 965th consecutive game over a number of seasons spanning well over a decade. He surpassed the previous record holder, Doug Jarvis, in a loss to the Islanders, which happened to be the Philadelphia Flyers' 13th defeat in a row and 30th in 43 games this season.

Yandle will likely have to keep appearing in lineups consecutively in order to maintain the record for long. Building concurrently, Phil Kessel of the Arizona Coyotes is just 24 games off the mark set by the new record holder, and is showing no signs that he will soon skip a start.

Impressively, Yandle and Kessel both outlasted the standard when it comes to longevity in recent NHL history. Patrick Marleau broke a half century-old record late last season, surpassing all-time legend Gordie Howe for total games played. Though not officially retired, Marleau did not sign with a team at the outset of the season, and sharply dropped off the pace set by the Yandle and Kessel-led peloton in the chase toward Jarvis.

What these players have in common is, well, durability and longevity — duh. But they have also dealt with one other commonality in becoming ironmen, which is that it's difficult to blend these individual pursuits with team success.

This became a huge story in Marleau's time with Toronto. It was clear that a few less cold tubs between periods and a few more press box appearances could have benefitted the veteran forward, who was soon struggling to contribute positively, let alone deliver value, beyond one season into his expensive free-agent deal.

But the Howe and Jarvis carrots dangled in front of the player and the franchise, and then-coach Mike Babcock respected the pursuit enough to continue jotting his name into the lineup — even if that sort of thing was selective for him.

Keith Yandle, centre, now owns the NHL's longest ironman streak. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
Keith Yandle, centre, now owns the NHL's longest ironman streak. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

That same respect was not shown at the beginning of last season when it was clear the Florida Panthers wanted to move on from Yandle. Then-head coach Joel Quenneville intended on having him start as a healthy scratch, appearing to threaten him with the idea of ending the streak himself, but relented in what seemed like nothing more than a game of chicken leading up to the opener.

Yandle won it, dressed, and scored in that first game, and remained in the lineup all season to keep the streak alive. Yet, when it came down to icing his best lineup in the postseason, Quenneville soon scratched Yandle without the fear of backlash, as the decision wouldn't compromise what is strictly a regular-season record. With ambition, suddenly, and now finally able to show their hand, the Panthers bought Yandle out of the final two years of his deal. History was someone else's concern.

There has been no such deliberation surrounding Kessel, but he's racking up consecutive games played in what's essentially hockey obscurity at this point. Though he's hugely failing to live up to the expectations tied to his contract on the last-place Coyotes, he's still expected to be moved at the trade deadline as a rental asset before stepping into unrestricted free agency. It will be interesting to see if Kessel will soon be faced with the decisions that Yandle and Marleau were forced to make.

While an individual milestone, unflinching availability and consistency are the ultimate selfless characteristics; they are the first steps on a roadmap to becoming a good teammate. But more often than not in the extremes when it comes to longevity and personal interest, it becomes a burden on teams aiming to operate at a high level.

In order for Yandle and Marleau to continue with their individual pursuits, teams had no choice but to take the prospects of shared success away.

It's an unfortunate reality, that these things can't seem to co-exist.

But it's also oh-so-very hockey that prioritizing anything individual seems to come with a cost.

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