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Anaheim Ducks defenceman Sami Vatanen checks Chicago Blackhawks centre Jonathan Toews. Assistant coach Trent Yawney has been credited with aiding the development of Vatanen and the team’s other young players.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Trent Yawney has become, in a roundabout way, one of the central figures in the Anaheim Ducks-Chicago Blackhawks playoff series, though not in the way that Patrick Kane is, or Corey Perry, or even goaltender Freddie Andersen.

Yawney, now a Ducks assistant coach, was head coach of the Blackhawks' minor-league team in Norfolk back in 2003-04 when Duncan Keith was just drafted. Yawney helped Keith get ready for the NHL and, ultimately, become a Norris Trophy winner.

And now, he is tasked with doing the same job for the Ducks, whose young defence is the envy of the league. The Ducks have three 23-year-olds and a 21-year-old playing regularly this postseason, two of whom – Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen – played for Yawney in Norfolk a decade after Keith was there.

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The others are Cam Fowler, who already has five NHL seasons under his belt, and Simon Després, Fowler's regular partner, acquired in a steal of a deal with Pittsburgh at the March trading deadline.

Just think where the Ducks might be if they'd managed to hang on to Justin Schultz, who left the organization to sign as a free agent with Edmonton, or Jake Gardiner, who was traded to Toronto for François Beauchemin. Maybe if they'd stuck with the Ducks their careers would have taken a different trajectory. After all, in Anaheim, developing defencemen is a priority: General manager Bob Murray played defence in the Chicago organization, as did Yawney. It also helps when the other assistant coach is Hall of Fame blueliner Scott Niedermayer.

"It's the old Sam Pollock philosophy," Yawney said. "Build from goal and defence out."

According to Anaheim head coach Bruce Boudreau, Yawney's primary achievement has been getting the Ducks defencemen "to play the right way. All year, we've pretty much rolled six defencemen. Very rarely will we get into a situation where two [of them] have to play 26 or 27 minutes, unless somebody gets hurt through the course of a game."

"I think Trent's done a great job as far as keeping everybody playing in every situation possible," Boudreau added, "and now it's been reaping the benefits so far in the playoffs."

Teaching defencemen has been Yawney's specialty since retiring after a 12-year playing career. When he started in Chicago's system in 2000, it was a small operation, and his wife, Charlane, sometimes helped by breaking down video for him.

Eventually, Yawney got promoted and had a 103-game stint as the Blackhawks' head coach, between Brian Sutter and Denis Savard – before Kane and Jonathan Toews landed in the organization and helped turn everything around.

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Yawney joined Anaheim's organization after spending three years as an assistant in San Jose, and was initially tasked with tutoring both Lindholm and Vatanen in the minors.

The precocious Lindholm, 21, is leading the Ducks defence in playoff scoring, and is evolving into a budding Nicklas Lidstrom, so good at both ends of the ice.

In the overtime loss Saturday night, Lindholm got inside position on Toews and swept the puck off the goal line to keep the Ducks' hopes alive.

That's how you have to play – quick and bold.

Nowadays, most teams give their defencemen the green light to pinch down the boards to make an aggressive play in holding the zone.

Or, when they're on the attack, they can buzz in from behind as the trailer to create odd-man rushes.

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Once upon a time, only Paul Coffey and a handful of others played that way.

"The old game was a game of three-man rushes," Yawney explained. "This is a game of four-man rushes. Once we have the puck, we're attacking with four, and that's where your D comes into play.

"You talk to anybody who watches or scouts the game, that's what they're looking for in a defenceman – if he can make that first pass out of your zone and if he's got the mobility to get into the rush."

Yawney described Lindholm at 18 as "raw but very coachable, and someone who pays attention to the details of the game. That's how you get better at the position."

Fowler, he said, is "a gifted skater who moves pucks and plays a lot better when he has a bit of risk to his game – when he gets up there and goes for it a little bit."

Vatanen, meanwhile, is "very dynamic and plays a hard game for a little guy," Yawney said. "He's not afraid to retrieve pucks and make plays. He's another one who came from Europe to the American League and, right out of the gate, was all-rookie team and first-team all-star.

"He's come a long way in terms of maturing as a player over here in North America. That would be a thing with all the young guys, I would say – over the course of the year, they really matured as defencemen in this league."

From Anaheim's perspective, the best news of all is that its young defenders haven't tapped their full potential yet.

At a time when the rest of the NHL is crying for help on defence, the Ducks have a surplus.

It's amazing what a commitment to proper drafting and development can accomplish.

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