Chuck Fletcher's long and exhaustive search for the third head coach in the Minnesota Wild's franchise history is over.
With the NHL Entry Draft and free agency looming, Fletcher won't get a break from making important decisions. But he will get some input on those tough choices from the new coach of the Wild, Mike Yeo, who is now the youngest coach in the NHL at 37 years old.
“Mike possesses a great passion for coaching and is a strong communicator,” said Fletcher. “He has been a winner at every level throughout his extensive coaching career.”
There's no question that winning has followed Yeo wherever he's gone. His teams have advanced to the finals five times in his 11-year coaching career in the American Hockey League and the National Hockey League. As a player, he won a Turner Cup as a member of the Aeros, and he also coached last year's Wild prospects to an undefeated record at the Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Michigan.
It was 366 days ago that Yeo was tabbed to lead the Houston Aeros, the Wild's primary developmental affiliate. In his first year as a head coach, he led the Aeros to a 46-28-1-5 record and an appearance in the Calder Cup Finals. He accomplished this with a mix of veteran pros and young prospects looking to crack the Wild's roster. However, he had very few first round picks (Colton Gillies was the only Wild first rounder to play the full season with Houston) at his disposal, and he dealt with a slew of key players jumping on flights from Houston to St. Paul, including Jared Spurgeon
, Marco Scandella
and Casey Wellman.
Yeo had aspirations of becoming an NHL Head Coach, but even he admits his dream is being realized earlier than expected.
"I'll be honest, I did believe in myself and I don't think you really get anywhere without having that vision and doing everything you can to make it happen," said Yeo. "Everything aside, I am well aware that I'm pretty fortunate to be in this position at this age and I'm well aware that along the way I've had a lot of help. From the teams I've had to coach, to the people I've had a chance to work with, all have been huge contributing factors to getting me to this point."
Some had speculated that Fletcher would feel obligated to hire a coach with a wealth of experience as an NHL bench boss following the dismissal of Todd Richards in April. The GM decided he'd rather go with a young coach who has proven, and won a lot of games in a short amount of time.
For Fletcher, finding the best man for the job superseded any need for someone with a large number of years behind a bench.
"It came down to some real good candidates at the end, but I think a few things separated Mike in my opinion," said the Wild GM. "I just love the intangibles he brings: He's a very good communicator, he's a very good teacher and, probably as importantly, he's a very good listener. I think he's somebody that's looking to learn all the time, looking for new ideas. He's willing to work with people, yet, he also has an edge. When he makes up his mind, he's pretty adamant about how he wants things to go and he doesn't let things slip … He was one of the best combinations, in my opinion, of technical expertise and good communication skills. So, he brings a lot to the table and for a young man, he has a tremendous amount of experience."
After having his playing career cut short due to a knee injury, Yeo joined the Pittsburgh Penguins organization as assistant for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. During his sixth season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, which included two Calder Cup appearances, Yeo became an assistant in Pittsburgh and was a part of two Stanley Cup Finals, including 2009 when he hoisted the grandest trophy in all of sports.
During his year with the Aeros, Yeo distinguished himself as a master of preparation and getting players to "buy into his system." He stressed team speed, getting into the offensive zone and managing the puck while there.
“He’s a great coach,” said defenseman Nate Prosser
, who spent last season in Houston and is poised to challenge for a roster spot this fall. “He knows so much about the game, and the systems he brought in worked unbelievably.
With a lot of young guys, there are a lot of questions, and [Yeo and his Houston staff] have a lot of answers.”
He'll inherit a team that he's familiar with, including several of those players that are expected to be ready to make a full-time jump to the NHL.
"We've got a lot of good players in Houston that are knocking on the door," said Yeo. "Not only how they grew this year, but I think more than anything, what they did in the playoffs. I was there firsthand to watch it and to see the way that those guys paid the price ... So, I've got a good understanding of what those guys bring and I expect them to really challenge for a real competitive training camp."
Yeo is excited to be the guy that will make those decisions and can watch those players flourish at the next level.
"I think one of the biggest ways [Houston prepared me for this position] was as far as planning your own team. Whether it's going into training camp and having a good plan in place, [or] making sure that coming out of training camp you're doing the right things to make sure that your team is playing the right way day in and day out. But also, you're building the right identity, you're building the right culture within your team, you're building a team that wants to go to war with each other each and every day."
The new Head Coach admits that he'll have to tweak his coaching philosophy slightly moving to the NHL level, but has some high aspirations for his new team.
"Certainly, you have to look at your personnel and that what you have is going to fit with the style and identity that you want to bring," said Yeo. "But with that, the game that I want to bring is very similar to the Pittsburgh Penguins. I think if you look at them, it's easy to say 'Well, they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin' but what's really impressive about them is the way that they lost those guys this year and the way that they were able to sustain being one of the top teams in the NHL. For us and what we're going to bring to the table, we're going to be a team that's tough to play against."
As Yeo' begins to consult with Fletcher on a search for assistants, as well as attend next week's NHL Draft, he's also making it a priority to speak with his new team.
"First and foremost, I have to get with the players," said Yeo. "There's going to be a period here in the next couple of days where I'm going to have to get my life in order as far as things back in Houston and finding a way to get ourselves settled here, but in that time I have to make sure we get in touch with the players and start planting the seed for what it is we want to get accomplished here, for the way that we're going to do it and starting to build those relationships with those guys. Because at the end of the day, we're all teammates, we're going to start going to war together, so I'd like to start getting on that ball right away."