Three years ago, when General Manager Chuck Fletcher hired Head Coach Mike Yeo, the GM gave the first-time NHL bench boss two tasks: win hockey games and develop young players.
In Yeo’s three seasons at the helm of the Wild, the club has produced a 104-82-26 record, qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs twice—after previously missing the postseason for five years—and advanced to the Second Round for the second time in team history. Under his guidance, Minnesota also has seen many of its top prospects emerge into viable contributors.
“We’ve started to create an identity of being a hard working, fast and resilient team,” Fletcher said. “That has been very critical to our success, in establishing that identity. We’ve also become a team that’s won a lot of hockey games and we’ve done so while playing a lot of young kids — all of whom have developed nicely under Mike and his staff’s direction. We couldn’t be happier.”
Along with developing the team’s youngsters, Yeo’s main focus has been creating a winning culture in the locker room. The Wild has developed the identity of being a tough team to play against and a stout defensive squad. He believes the Wild is headed in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
“When I talk about creating a culture, it’s about being a winner,” Yeo said. “And the biggest thing that winners have is an attitude where they’re never satisfied.”
One of the most impressive things about Yeo’s third season leading the Wild might’ve been his ability to keep the team focused regardless of the situation. Minnesota had two of its veteran leaders, Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise, missing for a large stretch in the middle of the season, had four different starting goaltenders and the bench boss was on the hot seat during a six-game slide in December.
Through it all, the youngest coach in the League, at 40, kept the club focused despite the possible distractions, something that impressed Fletcher immensely.
“I think the way he handled [adversity], I think his demeanor in terms of dealing with it, trickled down to our players,” Fletcher said. “I’ll never forget, someone asked (Parise) about the goaltending in the playoffs, I think Zach’s quote was ‘we don’t even notice it anymore.’ I think that speaks to Mike and how he handled everything, from the losing streak in late December to a little bit of some up and down play in March, to the injuries, to losing Mikko and Zach at the same time, to the goaltending.
“Once we got into the playoffs, that Colorado series was a roller coaster and I think the team took on Mike’s demeanor. I think that helped us get through.”
When Yeo was initially hired, it was his first NHL head-coaching job. Through three seasons, he’s grown as a head coach and looks to continue to improve.
“There’s so much to be learned in this profession when it comes to the motivational part, the team building part, the putting of players in roles and making everybody feel like they’re absolutely contributing, especially the bench management — that’s a huge part as well,” Yeo said. “There are a number of little areas. I do believe I’ve learned a lot about the game, the NHL game. It’s ever changing and I believe that we’re changing with it. I think more than anything else it’s probably the roles and the things that are required of a head coach.”
In today’s NHL, the development model has changed thanks to the salary cap. While developing players in the minors is still prudent, younger players are also asked to play a larger role with the big club. Fletcher believes that Yeo’s ability to coax the best out of the Wild’s younger players is a major factor moving forward.
“He very quickly showed to be a very good coach from a developmental standpoint. That’s what we’re trying to do,” Fletcher said. “In the cap world, clearly we have some players with higher cap numbers and in order to make it all work we need to have young players that not just play and wear a jersey, but players that can contribute. That means you have to develop at the NHL level.”
So, as the Wild continues to build towards hockey’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup, Yeo will be at the helm, and he couldn’t be happier to be doing it in the State of Hockey.
“The confidence they’ve shown in me…I’m extremely happy for a lot of reasons,” Yeo said. “Professionally, I’ve had every opportunity to succeed here and that’s what you want.
“The team, we’re very confident in, not only where we’re at but where we’re going.”
News and Notes
Fletcher noted that defenseman Keith Ballard underwent sports hernia surgery at the end of the season. He expects him to be fully recovered by next season and commended him on battling through the year and contributing in playoff time.
Fletcher said that goaltender Niklas Backstrom’s rehab is going well and he feels “great” physically. He hopes that translates into a good summer of training and a strong start in training camp. The GM said there is a possibility the Wild carries three goaltenders next season, much of that will depend on the health of Backstrom, Josh Harding and Darcy Kuemper, but added that the Wild will let the process play itself out.
The Iowa Wild’s first season in Des Moines was a success, more so off the ice than on it. Fletcher said the team needs to improve on the ice, and should with a number of prospects under contract for next season, but that from a business aspect the organization was happy with the club’s inaugural season after relocating from Houston.