The progress has been extensive. The improvement substantial.
Keith Yandle keeps getting better every season, and it’s now to the point where the Phoenix Coyotes defenceman is among the league’s elite.
Heading into Thursday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers, Yandle led the Coyotes in scoring with 11 goals and 57 points on the year. He’s tied with Lubomir Visnovsky of the Anaheim Ducks for the league lead in scoring by defencemen.
“You set goals for yourself at the beginning of the year, and you tell yourself how good you want to be and the expectations you want to have, but you never know if you can fulfill them or not,” Yandle said prior to Thursday’s game. “But for me, it’s been a great year, I’m having fun and I think it has a lot to do with the confidence that has grown through myself and I have gotten from the coaches.”
Selected in the fourth round — 105th overall — of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Yandle, 24, spent parts of two seasons with the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate in San Antonio before making the jump to the NHL full-time three years ago.
He posted 30 points in his first full season and recorded 41 last year.
This season, he’s being touted as a possible candidate for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenceman.
“It’s a little surreal to be mentioned with the likes of Nick Lidstrom and guys like Duncan Keith and (Zdeno) Chara,” Yandle said. “To be mentioned with those guys, it’s a special honour for me. Who knows what’s going to happen? But it’s fun right now.”
A native of Boston, Yandle went from high school hockey to Major Junior, where he played one season with the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL before turning pro.
Always considered an offensive defenceman, Yandle is working on becoming the entire package.
“You want to be known as a good offensive guy, but also as a guy who is solid in his own end and be able to get out of the defensive zone and go have fun in the offensive zone,” Yandle said. “In high school and junior, I was more of an offensive guy and the knock on me was my defensive play, and that I was a little soft in my own end. But I’ve tried to clean that up over the past few years and working with (assistant coach) Ulf (Samuelsson) every day has been great for me.”
As Yandel’s play in the defensive zone improves, so will his status among the top defencemen in the game.
“He defends partly by having the puck, which is a big part of defending when you’re not a heavy guy,” said Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett. “But his defending has gotten much better. He defends with strong position, the ability to beat people to loose pucks, things that have allowed him to play against top players in our league. On the other side, he can exploit people because of his skill and his skating ability.”
Yandle is one of the reasons for the Coyotes’ continued success this season.
The club went into the night’s play fifth in the Western Conference standings, looking to improve on their first-round playoff exit last year.
“We had great expectations for him even last year,” said Tippett. “Last year, he was kind of a third-pair guy, but he really came on at the end and right from training camp, he’s been a really good player.
“He’s a young player with a great deal of talent. It got to the point where he was given extra opportunity and he’s grabbed it and run with it. He’s been an unbelievable player for us this year.”