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Coyotes' Keith Yandle worthy of an all-star spot

NHL all-star snubs usually represent a figment of someone's overactive imagination. Ultimately, when the league's hockey operations department gets down to picking who plays and who doesn't - usually with a heavy dose of input from the teams themselves - they get it right the vast majority of the time.

For this year's game, to be played two weekends from now in Raleigh, N.C., the NHL elected to choose players from 26 teams, bypassing the Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders, Florida Panthers and Phoenix Coyotes. The first three, you could understand. All have struggled this year, none have players that immediately jump out at you as a team that absolutely, positively needed an all-star representative.

But omitting players from Phoenix's roster just seemed odd and unfair. The Coyotes were one of the top regular-season teams in the league last year and they were holding down the No. 4 ranking in the Western Conference again following Thursday night's action. The Coyotes don't usually score a lot, which is why the fact that a defenceman - Keith Yandle - leads them in scoring is noteworthy. Yandle, who had a three-point night vs. the Leafs Thursday, is a young American that drew some notice for his good play during the Coyotes' unexpected surge to respectability last season. He was even better in the playoffs against the Detroit Red Wings, but has taken his game to another level this year. Overall, he is sixth among NHL defencemen in scoring and tied for fourth in assists, as many of his peers predicted he might. He leads the Coyotes in time on ice (24:32); no one else is within two minutes per night of his average. In short, Yandle has been the best player on a quality team and was passed over. Strange - and in the eyes of Coyotes captain Shane Doan, a little outrageous.

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"It shouldn't have even been close," huffed Doan Thursday, as he wandered into the dressing room and saw how the line of questioning was developing. "Half the time, when he's on the ice, he's the best player out there - for both teams. He's an incredible player and he's only getting better."

For his part, Yandle took the news of his omission with good grace. He acknowledged that the Coyotes collectively made note of the fact that only rookie defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson will represent the organization in the skills competition and they would use the slight as motivation.

Usually, that sort of observation can be just the obligatory lip service, but with the Coyotes, it tends to be more real. Attendance isn't great this year and even as they win more than they lose, it is still a challenge to attract interest in the market. Playing the us-against-the-world card worked wonders for coach Dave Tippett last year - and it is still a useful tool even now.

"It may be a thing, we'll take it as if we're getting picked on a little bit - and maybe we can roll with it," said Yandle. "But all the guys that were picked were worthy. I don't think anyone's sour over not being picked."

The Coyotes hosted one of the NHL's top box-office attractions, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Thursday night and officially drew a crowd of 11,205, even if the building looked half empty. That will be the challenge for new owner Matt Hulzinger - to try and woo back the paying public.

But according to veteran defenceman Ed Jovanovski, this is the point in the season where things generally pick up. College football is over - the BCS championship was played next door on Monday night. The Arizona Cardinals missed the playoffs. For the foreseeable future, they're the main attraction in town.

"All you can do as a player is play well in games and force people to come watch us play," said Jovanovski - speaking before the Leaf game. "I think the expectations went up around the league for us. We had some changes. In the early part of the year, it's almost as if we were here, but we weren't there yet. In the second half, we've started off on the right foot, with a couple of comeback wins on the road.

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"We've talked about the need to get some separation. For the most part, as far as home and away games, it's favourable for us down the stretch. We understand how big the points are for us right now."

ARMSTRONG A LEAF LEADER: Spending a week or so with the young Leafs can change your perception of the team, for this obvious and basic reason. Assessing the talent and tactical play of every team is possible on television, but for mood and chemistry? It helps to see the byplay between players; and the way they handle themselves in the dressing room.

It is a well-known fact of professional hockey life that some players contribute more than just goals and assists to a team. Dave King, the estimable Phoenix assistant coach, once described this as "the circles of leadership" within a team's dressing room; and sometimes, the leadership comes from unexpected sources: role players, defensive specialists, veterans with big personalities.

The Leafs' Colby Armstrong fits seems to fit into that category. It is easy to see why the Pittsburgh Penguins pondered long and hard the effects on their internal chemistry on the move before they ultimately dealt Armstrong to the Atlanta Thrashers a few years back in that rent-a-player trade for Marian Hossa. Sidney Crosby and Armstrong were close friends, and even if the chemistry that was there once on a line didn't last forever, there is a risk attached to moving a popular dressing-room force.

The Leafs' room - this week anyway - had some similarities to Chicago's last year. The talent levels were obviously different, but they were young, resilient, and having fun.

"It's obviously more fun when you're winning," said Armstrong. "It seems we've got almost a quiet confidence amongst ourselves. We're giving ourselves a chance to win every night.

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"It's nice to also get on the road. We had a couple of team dinners together. We've been spending a lot of time together. I think all those little things help bring the team together."

That was a point that a Maple Leafs' staff member made as well. Travel nowadays for a team based in Toronto is so convenient that they don't spend as many nights away from home as say, a team in Western Canada that goes on more extended road trips might. That has physiological benefits, in terms of recovery etc., but it doesn't enhance team-building or chemistry.

The Leafs are now one of those teams that are getting closer in a lot of games. The sign of a maturing team is that they win more than they lose on the nights when there is not a lot of choose, from a performance perspective, between the two teams on the ice.

"Right now, other than the Atlanta game, where we really stuck it to them, we've just been finding ways to win," said Armstrong. "I'm sure you've heard it before, but sometimes, you find ways to lose games by putting pressure on yourself, or the whole team mindset is a little weak and fragile sometimes. But when you're rolling good, you know you're in the game, you know you've got a chance, and I think that confidence and good feeling rubs off on everyone."

AND FINALLY: A word of praise for 38-year-old Bryan Helmer, a career journeyman who last played in the NHL during the 2008-09 season for the Washington Capitals. On Thursday night, Helmer scored two goals and added one assist to become the American Hockey League's all-time leading scorer among defencemen. Helmer has 122 goals and 398 assists for 520 points in 986 regular-season AHL games to break the mark held by popular Newfoundlander John Slaney, who recorded 519 points during his AHL career. Helmer, who is originally from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., has played for Albany, Worcester, Manitoba, Springfield, Grand Rapids, and San Antonio in the AHL and Phoenix, St. Louis, Vancouver and Washington in the NHL. And no, he doesn't answer to the nickname Suitcase - at least not to the best of our knowledge.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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