By Alan Bass
With all the financial and legal problems going on in the desert, there hasn’t been too much to gloat about off the ice in Phoenix, but on the ice, it’s a time to look towards the future. Keith Yandle, a 23-year-old defenseman, embodies a young group of players trying to bring the club back to respectability.
And with the way Yandle continues to improve and fine-tune his game, Coyotes fans have something to be excited about.
“He is just now evolving into the player that he is going to be for the next few years,” Coyotes GM Don Maloney said. “I thought Keith, last season, was one of the few players who showed improvement.”
In his single season in the Quebec League, Yandle put up 84 points in 66 games with the Moncton Wildcats, in addition to an intriguing 109 penalty minutes. The Boston native showed he was a talented offensive defenseman, one that could put up points with ease.
In fact, Yandle so highly impressed, he was awarded the Emile Bouchard Trophy as the QMJHL’s top defenseman in 2005-06.
“It was big for me, especially going into a different league and country,” said Yandle. “It was great, just getting my name out there and getting recognized for all the hard work I put in. It helped me get to the next level and make the jump. It meant a lot to me.”
He spent the bulk of the following year in the American League with the San Antonio Rampage, scoring 34 points in 69 games. When he finally reached the NHL, Yandle put up 44 points in his first 119 games.
However, many people, including Maloney, thought Yandle was sacrificing defensive positioning in order to put up numbers.
“A lot of those offensive-minded players are like that,” Maloney said, “So I think you want to be able to play him on the ice in those tight games when the games are close.”
Recently, however, Maloney and the rest of the Coyotes staff have seen an incredible change in Yandle.
“There’s much more maturity in his game,” Maloney said. “Two years ago, he wouldn’t see the ice in the last six or seven minutes of a tight game. Now, we have much more confidence in him.”
All the uncertainty surrounding the team and the resignation of Wayne Gretzky led some to worry Yandle’s development would be stunted, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In fact, new coach Dave Tippett is getting the best out of Yandle and the rest of his troops.
“(Gretzky) was a great coach, he taught us a lot,” Yandle said. “He helped me out a lot. I have nothing but good things to say about him and what he did for me. But it’s been awesome, we’ve been winning some games and so it’s great. (Tippett) is definitely a great coach. He has a great system. Guys are buying into it and if we play the way he wants us to play, we’re going to be good and teams are going to recognize us.”
Added Maloney: “What I saw of Keith was just him maturing into a player you’re not afraid to put out in the last five minutes of a game. He’s become much more competitive and reliable when the game is on the line. He is still evolving into a great defenseman, I think his best years are still ahead of him.”
But Yandle knows his potential alone won’t keep him in good stead with this team:
“How do you stay in the NHL? Hard work, winning one-on-one battles and just playing solid hockey,” he said. “A bunch of little things, but you have to work hard, both during the games and in practice.”