The Phoenix Coyotes are tied with the San Jose Sharks and Columbus Blue Jackets for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference but have lost four straight games.
One major problem for the Coyotes during their losing streak, and throughout the entire season for that matter, is the team's lack of offense from its forwards, especially down the middle.
This team ranks 19th in goals scored, 24th in power-play success and has averaged just two goals per game during the month of March.
The lack of a legitimate top-six center and a top-tier goal scorer on the wings is forcing starting goaltender Mike Smith to be near-perfect each game for Phoenix to win on a consistent basis.
The only forward on the Coyotes roster with more than seven goals scored this season is 36-year-old captain Shane Doan, who has 11 through 30 games. As the chart below shows, the Coyotes' current group of centers has not been very productive offensively this season.
General manager Don Maloney has to make a move for a top goal scorer who will upgrade his top line and give the Coyotes an offensive threat capable of leading the team to the playoffs in a very competitive Western Conference.
At the beginning of February, Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun wrote that "The only impact blueliner available is Keith Yandle of the Phoenix Coyotes, who wouldn't mind shedding his $5.25 million salary."
Should Phoenix trade Yandle for a top-six forward?
With no recent reports connecting Yandle to trade rumors, it's difficult to make an accurate prediction on whether or not he will be in Phoenix after the April 3 deadline, but he's definitely Maloney's best trade chip to dangle for a top-six forward.
Yandle is one of the top offensive defenseman in the NHL with a powerful point shot, great playmaking skills and leadership. He is also a great skater with his defensive game rapidly improving.
He has scored five goals with 11 assists in 30 games and entered this season with three straight years of 10-plus goals and 40-plus points.
Luckily for the Coyotes, they are one of the few teams that's fortunate to have fantastic blue-line depth throughout their organization. A quick look at the team's impressive amount of quality defensemen proves that Phoenix has plenty to dangle before the trade deadline in exchange for a top-six forward.
- Oliver Ekman-Larsson (NHL)
- Keith Yandle (NHL)
- Derek Morris (NHL)
- Zbynek Michalek (NHL)
- Brandon Gormley (AHL)
- David Rundblad (AHL)
- Connor Murphy (CHL)
Since there are so many playoff contenders and championship-caliber teams that need to strengthen their depth and talent on the blue line before the postseason, it's likely Maloney would have plenty of teams interested in acquiring Yandle if he put the 25-year-old blueliner on the trade market.
Dennis Bernstein of The Fourth Period recently reported the number of scouts at the Coyotes' 3-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, and there were a lot of them.
REVISED: Regular scouts at LA-PHX: VAN STL BOS NSH East non-regular WPG (2) PHI TBL NYR (2) BUF West non-regular CHI (2) MIN CBJ— Dennis Bernstein (@DennisTFP) March 20, 2013
We don't know which players these scouts were looking at, but there were several teams represented at this game that could be looking for a top-four defenseman such as Yandle who will upgrade their blue line for the playoffs.
One of those teams is the New York Rangers, whose blue line has not been as productive offensively as it was last season. None of the team's defensemen have tallied more than 12 points this year, and only Michael Del Zotto and Anton Stralman have scored more than two goals.
Marc Staal's injury is also a major concern for New York. Staal has not played since he was hit in the face with a puck on March 5, and the team has not given an official timetable on when he could return to the lineup. He's one of the league's best defenseman, and if he's not going to be 100 percent in the playoffs (if he plays at all), general manager Glen Sather might need to make a move for a defenseman.
The Rangers have a few talented young forwards they could offer the Coyotes in a potential deal for Yandle, including young center Derek Stepan and top prospect Chris Kreider.
Stepan is an established top-six forward at the NHL level and could play the No. 1 center role for the Coyotes, while Kreider has the talent needed to become a very good power forward who scores goals and creates chances for teammates with his playmaking skills.
Another team that scouted Tuesday's game was the Boston Bruins, who are Yandle's hometown club. The Bruins came into this season with tremendous blue-line depth, but Adam McQuaid's injury issues, Andrew Ference's poor play at both ends of the ice and rookie Dougie Hamilton's inconsistent performance has created a need for another top-four defenseman in Boston.
The Bruins have arguably the most center depth of any team in the league, and have several players they could offer the Coyotes as part of a possible trade for Yandle, including David Krejci, Rich Peverley and Ryan Spooner. All three of these centers have impressive offensive talent and would excel in the Coyotes' defense-first style of play because of their two-way skill sets.
Other playoff contenders that might be looking to add a defenseman before the deadline include the Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Even though the Coyotes need to acquire a top-six forward and have plenty of defensemen to use in the trade market to acquire one, that doesn't mean Maloney will give up Yandle without getting tremendous value in return.
Will the Coyotes make the playoffs?
As a top-pairing defenseman with plenty of experience and fantastic offensive skills, Yandle is one of the Coyotes' most important players. Yandle has three more years remaining on his contract with a manageable $5.25 million salary cap hit (per Capgeek), so there is no pressure on the Coyotes to trade him this season.
However, when Oliver Ekman-Larsson's new six-year contract extension begins next season, the Coyotes will have $14.75 million of the $64.3 million salary cap tied up in three defensemen (Ekman-Larsson, Yandle and Zbynek Michalek), which is a large amount for a low-budget franchise that usually has more cap space than almost every team (For example, Phoenix has the second-most cap space right now, per Capgeek)
If Maloney can work out a deal for a top-six forward (preferably a center) before the deadline, trading Yandle would make the Coyotes a better team and give them a stronger chance of earning a playoff spot this season. Phoenix will not make another deep playoff run without bolstering its scoring depth over the next few weeks.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL lead writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs.