|Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)|
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
While most of his friends and family back home in the Bay State were busy being engulfed in a winter wonderland over the past few months, Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle (Milton, Mass.) has had the privilege of showing up to work in what we here in the Northeast would describe as summer clothes.
“You kind of get the best of both worlds,” Yandle said of playing in Phoenix. “You get to wear shorts all year and short-sleeve shirts. You go out to dinner and people don’t know who you are and you can kind of just do your thing, and when you get to the rink, you can just focus on hockey.”
For the time being, Yandle has no qualms with the anonymity that comes along with playing in the desert.
“That’s a pretty good thing about playing here,” he said. “I think it’s starting to come around even more now. People are starting to recognize you around town, so it’s a lot of fun.”
Given the stellar season he’s in the midst of, that anonymity probably won’t be lasting too much longer.
Heading into the Coyotes’ March 22 game against the Blues, Yandle ranked second among all defensemen in the NHL with 57 points, trailing Anaheim’s Lubomir Visnovsky by just a single point for the league lead.
What’s been the key to his killer campaign?
“I think probably confidence,” Yandle said. “It’s just another year in the NHL, another year playing, and you just get more and more confident. You feel better about yourself. The coaches have more confidence in me, putting me out there and playing lots of minutes. It definitely helps out.”
The 24-year-old blueliner credits coach Dave Tippett for plenty of his success, as the Coyotes bench boss steered the team into the postseason for the first time since 2002 last year.
“He’s been huge,” Yandle said. “Obviously, for me, he’s been great. He came in and put in his system and how he wanted us to play. We’ve been able to play it pretty good and that’s the reason for our success. He’s the No.1 reason why we are (in a good playoff position). I think every night we give ourselves a chance to win and that’s because of him.”
One of Tippett’s wisest moves was uniting Yandle with veteran Derek Morris, who returned to Phoenix late last season after brief stints with both the Rangers and Bruins.
“‘Mo’ has been huge for me,” Yandle said of his partner on the team’s top defensive pairing. “Every night he’s steady; he always makes plays and he’s always in the right position. I’ve played with him for three years, and it’s a thing where we know each other now. We have fun out there.”
Given his impressive numbers across the board, many hockey experts have suggested that Yandle could very well wind up being one of the three nominees for the Norris Trophy.
“It’s unbelievable,” Yandle said, in complete awe when hearing his name mentioned among the league’s elite rearguards. “If someone had told me in the beginning of the year that I was going to even be in consideration, I probably wouldn’t have believed them. It’s great. I’m just having fun with it and rolling with it.”
Set to become a restricted free agent July 1, Yandle has tried to not put much thought into his next contract. While the other 29 general managers throughout the league have likely already placed his agent’s number on speed dial for when the time comes, the offensively gifted defenseman is in no rush to leave Arizona behind.
“It’s one of those things that you try to not think about it during the year; you try to focus on winning, and when the summer comes, that’s when you think about that,” said Yandle, drafted 105th overall by the Coyotes in 2005. “But I love Phoenix and I love being there, so it’s a lot of fun.”
It’ll be even more fun if the Coyotes can push themselves into the second round in the postseason, something they came oh-so-close to accomplishing last spring before being bounced by the vaunted Red Wings.
“We hope so,” Yandle said when asked if he thought his team was ready to take the next step. “That’s the goal, to just keep getting better. Everyone still has a bitter taste in their mouth from losing Game 7 to Detroit last year. The thing this year, you don’t know where you’re going to be seeded and who you’re going to be playing until the last day. It’s going to be a fun experience and it’s going to be tight until the last game.”
With a blossoming offensive juggernaut in Yandle on their blueline, the Coyotes should be in good hands when crunch time arrives.
Gill, Mara defend Pacioretty
As if watching a young teammate laid out on the ice unconscious wasn’t tough enough, Canadiens blueliners Paul Mara (Belmont, Mass.) and Hal Gill (Bolton, Mass.) had zero tolerance for anyone implying that teammate and fellow New Englander Max Pacioretty (New Canaan, Conn.) or the Canadiens may have embellished the extent of his injuries.
Injured in a now-infamous hit by Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, Pacioretty suffered a fractured vertebrae and a concussion when checked into a stanchion along the boards at the Bell Centre in Montreal. While his teammate put the finishing touches on a 4-1 victory over Boston, the 22-year-old forward was taken to a local hospital after being wheeled off the ice on a stretcher.
Weeks after the incident, Bruins winger Mark Recchi said in a radio interview that the Canadiens may have exaggerated Pacioretty’s concussion in an effort to compel the league to suspend Chara for the incident.
“A player with a broken vertebra and has been knocked out on the ice for three or four minutes … how do you question the integrity of a hockey team and that we’re embellishing it?” Mara told ESPN.com.
“It’s really questionable coming from a guy who’s (43 years old) and has been around the league for so long. He’s entitled to his opinion and we’re entailed to ours, but in Montreal, we really know the truth.”
Gill was equally as dismissive of the future Hall of Famer’s comments.
“We had a player that was pretty seriously injured,” said Gill, a longtime Bruin. “If you’re saying anything other than, ‘I hope he’s well and I hope he’s getting better,’ then I don’t have any time for it.”
Trotz calls out Wilson
After a prolonged stretch of subpar play, Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz tried to light a fire under slumping forward Colin Wilson (Greenwich, Conn.).
“To me, he’s taken a step back here in his last couple of games, because it’s not about his ability, it’s about his mindset and he’s taken a step back,” Trotz said as Wilson was mired in a six-game stretch without a point at the time. “He has to step forward.”
Wilson, a former standout at Boston University, got the message loud and clear.
“I’m just trying to get back to what I do well,” he said, “and that’s get pucks in the corners, make plays and try to bring the puck to the net a little bit more.”
Whitney tired of rehab process
Sidelined since late December following ankle surgery, Oilers defenseman Ryan Whitney (Scituate, Mass.) resumed skating in March but doesn’t expect to be back before the regular season wraps up.
The 28-year-old blueliner, who was thriving in his first full season in Edmonton before being injured, said the recovery process is a tedious one.
“It’s just boring,” Whitney said. “Every day it’s the same thing. That part gets a little frustrating. You want to be playing, you miss the game. The first month or two is not as bad; now, you haven’t played in a while and you just really miss it.”
Jesse Connolly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org