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Smarter Yandle anchors Coyotes' blue line

by Jerry Brown /
GLENDALE, Ariz. – All of a sudden "the book" on Keith Yandle is in serious need of a revision.

So much for that young, unbridled, offensive defenseman of the Phoenix Coyotes who held major potential but was a major risk in a close game.

Meet Keith Yandle, 2.0.

He's logging 25-plus minutes of ice time every night. He's on the ice with close friend and partner Derek Morris to consistently combat the opposition's top line. He's taking the smart play over the high risk/reward option when his team has the momentum. He's alternating between quarterback of the power play and stalwart on his own blue line.

And in September, he turned 24 years of age.

"He can skate all night and his skills are obvious, but there was always that concern … can you put him on the ice when you're up a goal at the end of the period or end of the game?" Phoenix general manager Don Maloney said. "And this year, those concerns have been put to rest. He's taken a huge, positive step in his career."

The loss of Zbynek Michalek and some minor injuries to veterans Morris, Adrian Aucoin and Ed Jovanovski left coach Dave Tippett leaning hard on Yandle to carry the load and play in all situations. During a three-game sweep of Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver in late November, Yandle graduated in Tippett's eyes, saving his bag of tricks for the right situations and raising his reliability factor.

"He's really come on strong," Tippett said. "He took on a bigger load and the bigger the load, the more effective he became. He was averaging 30 minutes a game on that trip, playing in tough buildings in tough situations.

"He's past the young player/great potential stage. He's now a very good player who has even more upside."

Playing under control hasn't muted Yandle's offensive talents. He registered his 100th NHL point On Dec. 4 and leads the Coyotes with 11 of his 18 points coming on the power play this season – a power play that had gone from one of the League's worst last season to the middle of the pack. 

"I still feel like a young guy with a lot to learn, but being able to play more and keep your team stay out of trouble and win games," Yandle said. "You want to be out there as much as you can, getting into the flow and playing off that rhythm. For some reason, it took awhile for what it took to sink into my head."

He's been helped by the return of his good friend Morris, who came back to the Coyotes after a year's absence in a trade with Boston at the 2009 trade deadline. Morris called at 4:30 a.m. Arizona time to give him the news – because he knew the number by heart.

"Hello?" Yandle said.

"Get out of my house," Morris joked.

Yandle and his wife stayed for the rest of the season, taking care of Morris while his wife and kids finished out the school year in Massachusetts. And Morris – who traveled the same path as a skilled young defenseman a decade ago -- went back to taking care of Yandle on the ice.

"He skates and skates going forward the whole game, and I'm worn out just staying back," Morris said with a smile. "He's not only a great player, he's a great person and someone you're happy to see have success. He's improved so much in the time I was gone, and he's going to get even better.

"He's just got that knack, that ability to make the play that not many people see; now he's learned the simple pass is sometimes the best one."

But Maloney feels Morris deserves some credit too. "Derek has been a very good influence, the way he talks to Keith in practice," he said. "When Keith makes a mistake he tries twice as hard to make up for it. With other young players, you make a mistake and then they don't want to touch the puck at all."

Now that the Coyotes are healthy on the blue line, don't expect Yandle to give any of his shifts back.

"Players dictate ice time, not coaches," Tippett said. "When a coach sees a guy playing well, you play him more. Players recognize when a guy gets hot and they're happy for him because it gives them a better chance to win."
"He can skate all night and his skills are obvious, but there was always that concern … can you put him on the ice when you're up a goal at the end of the period or end of the game?.  And this year, those concerns have been put to rest. He's taken a huge, positive step in his career."                                                      -- Phoenix GM Don Maloney on Keith Yandle
Maloney is so high on his young defenseman, he went out of his way to stamp out an unfounded, early-season rumor that Yandle – a restricted free agent at the end of the season – was being shopped to his hometown Boston Bruins

Yandle is as Boston as you can get. He is an ardent fan of the Celtics, Red Sox and Patriots. His favorite movie? "Good Will Hunting." TV show?  Dennis Leary's "Rescue Me." If he wasn't a hockey player, he'd be hanging off a hook and ladder for the Boston Fire Department.

But playing for the Bruins isn't in his future

"It was totally false and a pretty silly rumor if you think about it," Maloney said. "We're already talking about Keith's next contract (with a raise from this season's $1.3 million paycheck). And as soon as the ownership situation settles, it will be one of our first orders of business."
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