New York Islanders\' Alexei Yashin (79), celebrates his goal with teammate Viktor Kozlov during a game last month. (CPimages/AP/Kevork Djansezian)
The New York Islanders head coach has lit a fire under centre Alexei Yashin.
"I'm not too sure what I've done, it's more so what he's done," Nolan said Wednesday, trying to deflect any credit.
"The one thing about Alexei is that what I've heard and what he is are totally different things," added Nolan, whose team is off to a surprising 5-4-2 start. "I've never met a classier individual in my life. I've met a lot of sports people but he's a top-notch, quality person."
That glowing assessment might surprise some.
But Yashin has always sparked strong feelings. There was acrimony in his departure from the Ottawa Senators in June 2001. And then shock at the subsequent US$87.5-million, 10-year contract he signed on Long Island.
Plus he's been hammered in media circles for underperforming as an Islander.
"I think it's part of professional sports," Yashin said Wednesday when asked about the criticism. "If you look around, it happens to players in football and baseball, too. The biggest example here in New York is Alex Rodriguez with the Yankees. The media has to sell newspapers. The biggest news is when you find negative stuff on the stars. I have to live with that and it's been part of my life."
Yashin, in the sixth year of that contract which pays him $7.6 million this season, insists he's always given it his all despite what people perceive.
"I really try to give everything I have in every game," said Yashin, who had 66 points (28-38) in 82 games last season. "And I hope some fans appreciate that."
Nolan had heard all the stories about Yashin before taking the Isles' job in June. But if there's anyone willing to give somebody a break despite a bad reputation, it's Nolan, who twisted in the wind for nine years between NHL jobs after his departure from Buffalo.
"Alexei's got great passion," Nolan said from his Islanders office. "Maybe the rap that he's got in the past is unjust. . . .
"We're just going forward and he seems to love playing and we love watching him play. He's going to make a lot of heads turn this season."
Yashin, who turns 33 Sunday, leads the Islanders with 13 points (5-8) in 11 games and 53 shots on goal while playing more than 19 minutes a game, second among forwards on the team.
"The big thing that Ted does here is that he lets me play the penalty kill," said Yashin. "It helps me stay in the game. It keeps me ready, every next shift I'm ready to play instead of missing a big chunk of the game.
"I'm getting more consistent ice time."
That was a no-brainer, said Nolan.
"He's a great player and great players need minutes," said Nolan. "Alexei is on our No. 1 power play and our No. 1 line. He's even blocking shots. . . . He's skating well, he's making great plays, he's getting involved physically."
Nolan didn't waste time forging a relationship with his top centre.
"I went out for dinner with Alexei and our owner Charles Wang the very first night after I got hired this summer and we talked about the team, which direction we wanted to go into," said Nolan. "We started that rapport right away and we continued it. We went out for more meetings later. He got more comfortable with me and I got more comfortable with him.
"It has to do with communication, you have to communicate with people in order to find out what makes them go."
Said Yashin of his coach: "We have a very good connection."
Nolan surprised some around the hockey world by also keeping the 'C' on Yashin's jersey.
"You can be the greatest captain in the world but if you don't have people in the room to support you, it's difficult," said Nolan. "One of the things we've done here is bring in some people to support his leadership, I just don't think Alexei was surrounded with proper leadership in that room last year.
"When you look at guys like Chris Simon, Mike Sillinger and Brendan Witt, those guys have really added something. Alexei feels a little bit more comfortable with himself and now his play his indicative of that."