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Coyotes will vouch for Yandle's Olympic credentials

by James Murphy

Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle has stated his case for a spot on the United States roster at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Since the previous NHL Olympic season in 2009-10, Yandle has 154 points in 166 regular-season games and 14 points in 20 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Between the 2009-10 season and the current one he was a combined plus-32. He has played in two NHL All-Star Games and is a main reason the Coyotes reached the Western Conference Final in 2012.

Yandle stands fifth among active American-born NHL defensemen with 57 goals and 182 assists in 449 games. Only four American defensemen -- Paul Martin, Ryan Whitney (not currently on an NHL roster), Dustin Byfuglien and Ryan Suter, who leads all active American-born blueliners with 292 points in 629 games -- are ahead of Yandle.

The Boston native once again is leading Phoenix defensemen with 22 points in 36 games this season and is a main reason why the Coyotes, despite hovering around .500 the past month, still hold a playoff spot in the tight Western Conference standings entering their game Friday against the San Jose Sharks.

Yet for some reason Yandle apparently is not a lock to make the U.S. roster and his teammates can't understand why.

USA Hockey will announce its Olympic roster on Wednesday following the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS).

"He's a tremendous player and he definitely deserves to be on that team," said Coyotes goalie Mike Smith, who is vying for a spot on the Canadian Olympic roster. "I'm glad I have him on my team because I wouldn't want to play against him more often than maybe in the Olympics or World Championship.

Keith Yandle's Coyotes teammates believe that he should be a lock for the U.S. 2014 Sochi roster. (Photo: Andy Devlin/NHLI)

"He gets plenty of attention on our team. [Yandle] is just a special player. We're fortunate to have him and [defenseman Oliver] Ekman-Larsson. They're two guys that can really carry the puck and are unbelievable at moving their feet. Most teams are begging for one of those types of guys and we're very fortunate to have two. [Yandle] has been a big part of this team on the ice and in the dressing room where he's a big part of our leadership group. We love having him."

Coyotes coach Dave Tippett recently described Yandle as a dynamic player that has the ability to change the momentum of a game in an instant.

"There will be a game going on with not much happening and all of a sudden he can make something happen," Tippett said. "That dynamic element coming from your blue line in today's NHL is something you need to make yourselves successful. He's grown into a better two-way player. He was always a good offensive player but he does it on both ends now and he still has that element to change a game on one play and he's a very valuable player for us."

One player that has played a role not only in helping Yandle develop into a well-rounded defenseman but also a leader in the Coyotes dressing room is veteran defenseman Derek Morris. Morris has watched Yandle grow from a raw offensive talent and eager rookie to a solid two-way defenseman now doing some mentoring of his own with current Coyotes rookie defenseman Connor Murphy, who Yandle has been paired with for much of this season.

"I think [Yandle] came into the League … just happy to be there," Morris said. "One thing is that [Yandle] is a very respectful kid. He respects all the guys ahead of him and listens to what they have to say. Obviously there isn't much we can teach him offensively, but with little tricks of the trade that guys can teach him he's always willing to learn them. He's getting older now and he has a new kid playing with him and he's passing it on to him. I think he's one of the reasons our team is successful and is a leader in our room that makes it fun to come to the rink every day."

After mentoring Yandle for almost three full seasons (2006-09) Morris was dealt to the New York Rangers at the 2009 trade deadline and moved on the following season to the Boston Bruins. When he became a Coyote again, traded back to Phoenix at the 2010 trade deadline, he saw a much more mature and calmer defenseman in his former defense partner.

"Just how much more of a difference he made in a game," Morris said of Yandle. "When he first came into the League he'd make a difference but you wouldn't notice it as much. Now he's relied upon to make a difference every single night and he does. His consistency level is up. His defensive-zone play is way better than anybody gives him credit for. And while everybody thinks you need to be all bang and crash to be a solid defenseman, he reminds me of Nick Lidstrom because he has a great stick and when he pokes it away from you he's already going the other way on offense. The best offense is always a good defense, as they always say."

That's why Morris is really hoping USA Hockey realizes what a balanced defenseman they'd be getting were they to put him on the 2014 Olympic roster.

"I sure hope so," Morris said. "He's the reason our team has a chance to win every single game and he'd be a great addition to any team."

Morris was asked why he thought Yandle is on the bubble to make the U.S. team and not a lock with the likes of Suter or other more popular U.S.-born defensemen.

"It's a good question," Morris said. "Obviously where we are we don't get the media coverage a lot of teams do. But anyone that plays in the West will know who Yandle is. He's a very dynamic player and very exciting to play with and watch, but not against."

Should USA Hockey decide to put Yandle on their blue line, the 27-year old said he would be honored to represent his country on the grandest of international stages.

"It's special, for sure," Yandle said. "I don't know if it's because you get used to wearing your own NHL jersey -- and that's special too -- but the USA jersey is unique. You don't wear the red, white and blue every day, and when you do it's very special and a proud moment."

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