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Phoenix Coyotes' Keith Yandle (R) celebrates his goal with teammate Radim Vrbata during the third period of their NHL hockey game against the Calgary Flames in Calgary, Alberta, March 15, 2011. (TODD KOROL)
Phoenix Coyotes' Keith Yandle (R) celebrates his goal with teammate Radim Vrbata during the third period of their NHL hockey game against the Calgary Flames in Calgary, Alberta, March 15, 2011. (TODD KOROL)

ALLAN MAKI

Keith Yandle dances way into Norris talk Add to ...

They say he skates well, and he does. They say his defensive game is on the upswing, and it is.

And his dancing, it's something else, too. It's become a Phoenix Coyotes tradition.

When they win a game, forward Lauri Korpikoski cranks up the music in the dressing room and defenceman Keith Yandle dances to Teach Me How to Dougie. How this started, even Yandle isn't sure.

But as long as the Coyotes keep winning, he's okay with it. And the way Yandle has played this NHL season is a significant reason why the Coyotes have overcome their down times - along with those persistent bound-for-Winnipeg rumours - and maintained a playoff presence in the Western Conference.

Yandle, by every measurable, is a James Norris Memorial Trophy candidate. He's been the scoring leader among defencemen for much of the season and, heading into Thursday's game against the Edmonton Oilers, his 46 assists are tops among rearguards. His ice time per game is one of the highest totals in the league and they include a handful of outings where he played more than 30 minutes.

As for his defensive game, he takes on the opposing team's top line game after game and has developed into a dutiful defender with a quick mind and an active stick.

So why shouldn't he be mentioned with such Norris Trophy possibilities as Nik Lidstrom (Detroit Red Wings), Shea Weber (Nashville Predators), Kris Letang (Pittsburgh Penguins), Lubomir Visnovsky (Anaheim Ducks) and Zdeno Chara (Boston Bruins)? According to Coyotes captain Shane Doan, its all part of the plan.

"[Before the season]we had a talk about Duncan Keith [of the Chicago Blackhawks]" Doan said of his chat with Yandle. "I felt our Keith was as good as anyone in the league. I felt he could step up his game the way Duncan did in Chicago and be a Norris Trophy candidate [winner in 2010]

"I've been telling all my friends the last two years to take [Yandle]in their fantasy hockey pool," Doan added. "Now, he's making me look really smart."

The Boston-born Yandle was ready to take the kind of leap his captain was expecting. At 24, this is his fourth full season in the NHL and every year he has played more, scored more and been counted on more.

When the Coyotes moved out several defencemen and lost Ed Jovanovski to an injury, it opened the bench door for Yandle to play on the top defensive pairing with Derek Morris. That put him out for every key situation and the results have been unmistakably good.

"The anticipation was he'd be a good offensive defenceman," Coyotes assistant coach Dave King said. "There have been so many times this season where he's changed the course of the game with his puck moving. And he's got that ability to score timely goals that make a difference. … His defensive game has really evolved. He's got the instincts all the great players have. He's not big [6 foot 1, 195 pounds]but he's afraid of nothing."

Yandle was taken by the Coyotes in the fourth round of the 2005 draft. His plan was to play hockey with his brother, Brian, at the University of New Hampshire. ("I was going to do that for my dad," Yandle said. "It didn't work out.")

Instead, Yandle jumped to the Moncton Wildcats, where he played for former NHL head coach Ted Nolan. Moncton won the QMJHL title and Yandle was named top defenceman. The idea was to fast-track himself to the NHL. Within two years, Yandle was a big-league regular and hungry for more.

"This year, I set my goals high," he explained. "When I talked with Doan, he said I have to play well for us to be successful. That was important to hear."

Yandle's goals were to be an all-star (he was selected to the 2011 NHL all-star game as a late replacement), to be the best player on his team, and to be the best player on the ice every night. So far, he's surprised himself.

"If you had told me at the beginning of the year I'd be mentioned for the Norris. I probably wouldn't have believed you. Just to be mentioned with Lidstrom and Chara, it's a pretty big honour," Yandle said.

As big as being asked to dance the Dougie after every Phoenix win?

"I did it once; now it's become my duty."

Coming soon to YouTube.com, he figured.

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

 

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