Monday, May 21, 2012

Coyotes Comeback is Up to Rising Star Yandle

By Larry Wigge

Last year at Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals at TD Garden in Boston, Keith Yandle had some prime seats set aside for him. They were courtesy of Bruins winger Brad Marchand.

The arrangement was made for Buddy Yandle, Keith's father and long-time friend of Marchand's ... actually a former teammate and friend at Moncton when they growing up.

"We were right behind Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo," said Keith. "The Bruins were down 3-2 in the series after Luongo shut them out 1-0 in Game 5. We hoped we would see plenty of Boston goals that day."

The Bruins won 5-2 and then captured Game 7 at Vancouver 4-0. The Bruins were a comeback team all playoffs long. They rallied from a 0-2 deficit in the first round against Montreal and came back from another 0-2 deficit in the Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay.

Now, Yandle is hoping for the same kind of comeback for his Phoenix Coyotes in Game 5.

Yandle got a front row view of the Cup finals, but more important he got to see a Boston team that won three Game 7's in the process. This year, Yandle's team, the Coyotes, could use a little bit of luck in getting to Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Kings.

Down 3-0 in the series against the Kings, the Coyotes roared back on the strength of two goals by veteran Shane Doan and the stingy goaltending of Mike Smith.

Yet, it all comes down to coming back for Phoenix and Yandle.

Said Yandle, "I saw the Bruins do it last year ... why not us this time."

The 25-year-old Boston native grew up a Red Sox and Bruins and Patriots fans. 

"As a kid I played a lot of road hockey and I always said I was Ray Bourque," Yandle explained. "Growing up, I was friends with his son, Chris Bourque, and I always used to get Ray's old half-broken wooden sticks and I'd use them for street hockey. I was a huge Bruins fan growing up."

As a kid, Keith always wanted to be a firefighter, if he couldn't be an NHL player. His grandfather was a fireman ... and I looked up to him big time. Whenever I was at my grandparent’s house I was always wearing his helmet pretending to put out fires. 

But hockey was his real dream -- and playing defense was his way to get there.

Keith is the total package of skating, size, skill, hockey sense, vision and leadership ability. He is a clutch performer who is at his best in highly competitive situations. He is especially strong quarterbacking the power play. He is very strong passing the puck with hard accurate passes. He is also very strong in his own end.

Yandle and Bourque played prep hockey for Cushing Academy. While there, he was named as a New England prep First Team All-Star (2004-05). But, his plans to play college hockey at New Hampshire like his older brother Brian were scrapped. He decided to blaze his own trails and play for the QMJHL instead.

In his first and only year playing for the Moncton Wildcats (2005-06), Yandle helped the team become first in the league, helped lead Moncton to the Memorial Cup finals, and received the Emile Bouchard Trophy being named the league's best defenseman as well as the Telus Trophy for CHL defensive player of the year.

He always had his sights on the NHL and the Quebec League was right. There, Ted Nolan, former NHL coach with Buffalo and the Islanders, was in charge.

"I think going to play in the Quebec League was the right decision because it was more of an NHL-style league, with the travel and the amount of games," Yandle said. "In terms of offensive ability, the Quebec League isn't like the Western League. The West has big guys and lot of clutch and grab. The Quebec League is more of a free-wheeling league and you get to hone your skills pretty good."

Skills ... Yandle had plenty of them.

"The Q isn't the league it used to be when it was all offense, as a lot of focus is that it is more of a position game," he continued. "If you're a good skater then you have a pretty good chance to be successful.

"I thought it was my best chance to get to the NHL ... and make it as fast as possible."

In the process, Yandle led all QMJHL defenders in assists (59) and points while finishing tied for second in the league in goals, third in power-play goals (15) and fourth with a plus-50 rating.

The 6-1, 195-pound defender was selected by the Coyotes in the fourth round, 105th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

Some may have said he was good enough to make the NHL right away, but Yandle split time between San Antonio of the American Hockey League and Phoenix from 2006-08 as he worked to refine the defensive side of his game

"In the NHL you can't be all offense, you have to play good defense to get on the offensive side of the puck," Yandle explained. "It's more about managing your game and keeping it simple."

Pretty smart theory for a young whipper-snapper.

In his third season with Phoenix, Yandle scored 11 goals and 59 assists -- third in the NHL behind Lubomir Visnovski and Nicklas Lidstrom.

Growing up, Lidstrom was always his second favorite defenseman -- next to Ray Bourque.

Yandle said he wanted to chat with Lidstrom at the All-Star Game and pick his brain.

"But he seems like such a great guy, obviously he's a future Hall of Famer," Yandle said. "Every guy there is going to be fun to meet and get to know."

Shane Doan, captain of the Coyotes, said he'd introduce the two.

"Keith is our best player, a special player and he should be there," Doan said. "Night in, night out, he's the best player on the ice for both teams. He's just starting to get an idea of how good he can be. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch him grow.

"He's already the best player on the ice probably 75 percent of the time."

Seventy-five percent of the ice. That's a mouthful.

In 15 games in this year's playoffs, Yandle has eight assists. He is steadily growing as we watch his game.

"Keith is an alternate captain, he fits into our culture and he fits into our future," said GM Don Maloney. "When we looked at the term, even with dollars spent, I thought it was good value for a top young Norris Trophy-potential defenseman that I still believe has upside to his game."

Five years for a total of $26 million should make Yandle one of Phoenix key guys in a potential dream comeback against Los Angeles.

Long way since Keith Yandle used Ray Bourque half-broken sticks for wooden sticks for street hockey.

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