It would have been pretty easy to assume Father Time had simply come calling a bit prematurely for veteran center Stephane Yelle when the thirtysomething pivot was slow-moving out of the gate this season. The 34-year-old seemed to be having trouble getting into the flow of the game and the faceoff specialist — targeted by the Black and Gold in the offseason for his ability to win draws along the dot and specialize in the little things needed to kill penalties — was uncharacteristically struggling in the faceoff circle while hovering around a 40 percent success rate.
Looking back in hindsight, it’s probably understandable that there was a healthy period of adjustment for Yelle, who has always been a Western Conference denizen and carries around hockey skill set that doesn’t exactly jump out and grab the unsuspecting fan.
In many ways Yelle is similar to P.J. Axelsson in his ability to go long periods of ice time doing all the little things without screaming out for attention with a teeth-chattering body check or a one-man dangle-fest through a host of defenders before scoring. Off the ice, he’s similarly quiet and reserved while also holding the respect of younger players that probably spent an ample amount of time playing Yelle in Sega Genesis or Playstation video game hockey.
The 34-year-old simply had to make an adjustment to the Eastern Conference-style and tinker with his hockey dial to something with a great deal more aggressive physicality and dump-and-chase puck philosophy, and that adjustment seems to now be complete. The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder was scoreless through his first seven games and sat at a -2 through that time period, but things finally started to slow down for the seasoned vet just as the Bruins team caught fire.
Yelle is back up to winning 49.7 percent of his faceoffs, and has quickly learned the habits and tricks of the trade employed by his new Eastern Conference draw adversaries. Opposing centers basked in the element of surprise during Yelle’s first time around the division, but the Old Rebel Yelle Dog has caught on to the new tricks.
“Yeah, there’s definitely always a transition period to a new team, but I feel like I’ve been around long enough to really be comfortable with the guys now,” said Yelle. “I’m comfortable with the systems and stuff. Usually you don’t want to get off to a bad start [with the faceoffs] because it’s a long climb up, but I’ve been working hard, doing different things and not being predictable. There are different little strategies you can implement to keep guys guessing.”
Yelle will switch things up on opponents that feel like they’ve got Yelle pegged. The former Avalanche and Flames skater will take some draws with his backhand and go after others with his forehand — or just tie a guy up and attempt winning a one-on-one battle for the free puck — that all fits under the heading of the cat-and-mouse game played with the opposing centers that he’s customarily lining up with.
“Coming from the Western Conference, you play the same guys a lot and you don’t know the Eastern guys as much,” added Yelle. “You don’t know their tendencies and sometimes it becomes a guessing game. Now that I’ve played them a couple of times I’m getting an idea of what they intend to do, and hopefully it can help me out down the road.”
Yelle has 3 goals and 5 assists and sits at a +2 in his last 17 games and the Bruins coaching staff has taken note of him reaching his water level — even if his contributions aren’t easily pinpointed by a casual perusal of the postgame stat sheet. He’s on a pace for 10 goals and 17 assists this season, which would be perfectly acceptable numbers out of the middle man on the energy line.
“Our young guys have been getting better in the faceoff circle and Yelle really brings that experience when he gets in there,” said Julien. “We knew when we brought Stephane in here that he would have a veteran presence and a lot of experience along with his penalty kill and faceoff skills. He’s been a very good fit for this team.”