GLENDALE, Ariz. — Keith Yandle grew up dreaming two big dreams: to play in the NHL and to wear the red, white and blue in the Olympic Games.
The Coyotes defenseman has clearly achieved the first goal, but the second one eluded him on Wednesday when the United States Olympic roster for the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, was announced following the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich., between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The eight defenseman selected were Washington’s John Carlson, Carolina’s Justin Faulk, Anaheim’s Cam Fowler, Pittsburgh’s Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, the New York Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh, St. Louis’ Kevin Shattenkirk and Minnesota’s Ryan Suter.
"It really speaks volumes for the depth and quality of players USA Hockey is putting out," said Coyotes general manager Don Maloney, who spoke with members of the selection staff on Wednesday. "I’m disappointed for Keith, but a 10-day break in February to regroup before the last six to seven weeks of the season is not the worst thing in the world for the Phoenix Coyotes."
There is no doubting Yandle’s offensive abilities. He is tied for third on the team and eighth among NHL defensemen with 27 points, but questions have persisted about his defensive abilities, even if Maloney feels they are less warranted than they used to be.
"Before, my question with Keith was always, ‘Can you trust his game in the big moments? But I think he has grown leaps and bounds from where he was two, three, four years ago in terms of his game without the puck and making the simple play instead of always going for the home run," Maloney said.
Yandle said he has worked hard on his stickwork and positioning to make himself a better defender, as he does not have the size to be a physical force. But youth (27), the fact that he only plays one side and the fact that he doesn’t kill penalties may also have been factors in his being passed over, Maloney said.
Maloney said Yandle has been the team’s best player for the past month and noted that when the Olympic selection process comes around again in four years, he will have a very strong chance of making the team. There is also the possibility that he could still be added this year due to injuries to other players.
When Wednesday’s Coyotes practice had concluded, Yandle still didn’t know his fate because the Winter Classic was still in progress.
"I’ve never been to Russia, so hopefully I’ll get the opportunity," said Yandle, who was looking forward to playing on the larger Olympic ice sheet. "I think that would be the best part — a lot of ice, a lot of room to skate. Here in the NHL, there’s a lot of big bodies out there and there’s not too much room to get around. You can use your skating a little bit more (on the bigger surface)."
Yandle was not available after the roster was announced, but the Coyotes have several other Olympic hopefuls who talked about their nations’ upcoming decisions.
Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a lock to make Team Sweden. Goalie Mike Smith could make Team Canada, forward Lauri Korpikoski seems a logical choice for Finland and forwards Martin Hanzal, Radim Vrbata and defenseman Zbynek Michalek are all candidates for the Czech team, although Michalek’s injury likely will keep him from competing.
Smith has repeatedly stated how much playing in the World Championships last summer meant to him and how much he’d like to play in the Olympics.
"I’m excited and honored to even be mentioned in the players that could go to the Olympics," he said Wednesday.
Hanzal also reiterated his desire to play.
"I missed the last one, didn’t make it, so I’m really excited for this one," he said. "It’s something special, probably because it’s every four years and itâs the best athletes in the world. It’s a huge challenge for me, and it means something to be selected."
Vrbata hasn’t played in the Olympics, but he has competed in three World Championships. He sees positives in either scenario — being selected or being passed over.
"If it would be in Salt Lake City or Vancouver, you’d want to go, no question, but with that travel, you have to think about that," he said, noting that Sochi is 11 time zones away. "If I go, it’s a great honor, and the idea of being an Olympian makes you want to go, but if I don’t it would be nice to have those two weeks off where you can regroup and get some rest, do some training and prepare yourself for the rest of the season."
That’s a sentiment Maloney clearly shares.
"The travel can be very taxing and demanding on your body," he said. "I hope everyone in our division has 10 players on Olympic rosters."
The deadline for the announcement of rosters is Jan. 7. The Czechs and Korpikoski expect to find out on Jan. 6.