The Minnesota Wild Need to Pinpoint the Cause of their Winter Swoon

It’s the same story. Here we are again.
— Wild head coach Mike Yeo after Saturday’s 4-3 OT loss to the Dallas Stars

The Minnesota Wild have a pattern of slumping this time of year, and they need to correct it — this is obvious to everybody who follows the team. Head coach Mike Yeo led his postgame press conference by offering as much, unsolicited. The front office is well aware of it. Writers are writing about it. Fans are sick and tired of it.

It also needs to change, and in order to avoid this pattern, difficult decisions will have to be made.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Yeo is in his fifth year as head coach of the Wild, and the winter swoon has happened every season save for the lockout season that wiped out November and December of the 2012-13 season.

In Yeo’s first year, his undermanned squad overachieved in the first half of the season and then collapsed. They did not make the playoffs that year, but were not expected to. As soon as Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were signed in the offseason, however, that all changed. Parise and Suter joined this team in their prime, the organization’s young talent was coming of age, and everyone in Minnesota knew that this team was serious about winning the Stanley Cup with Parise and Suter leading the way.

Signing the two biggest free agents puts a lot of pressure on the coach and general manager of any team in any sport. It’s a luxury to have in some sense: the coach gets an immediate influx of talent to work with, while the GM has two stars to build around. But it also means that different expectations are set for the team.

To use another local example, the Twins surprised everyone outside the organization by producing a winning record this season. Paul Molitor is seen as a good replacement for Ron Gardenhire, and Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Trevor May are seen as centerpieces this team can build around. In general, people are encouraged about the direction the team is going in, despite the fact that they missed out on making the postseason this year.

Yeo couldn’t miss the playoffs in his second year, even though the Wild were a young, inexperienced team outside of Suter and Parise. When it was revealed that GM Chuck Fletcher had shown up early to the team’s final regular season contest against the Colorado Avalanche, a game that determined whether or not they would make the playoffs, and sat in an empty arena for hours before the game, everyone felt his anxiety. Rational or not, that season was a failure of the Wild didn’t sneak into the postseason that year.

Then there was the swoon the next year which culminated in Yeo not speaking to his players after a six-game losing streak from Dec. 19 through the 31st. It’s not uncommon for coaches to use this technique after a critical game — say a tough loss in the playoffs where everyone knows what’s at stake — but this looked like the action of a petulant young coach who knew his job was on the line rather than a calculated technique to motivate his team. At the very least, it appeared to be a result of emotions boiling over rather than rational decisionmaking.

Last season there was Yeo’s famous meltdown in practice where he went on a profanity-laden rant and left the ice after taking a stick to the boards. A couple days later the team lost 7-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and a change at the helm seemed all but a certainty. Instead, Fletcher went out and got goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who at the time looked like a first-round bust, and everyone knows the rest: Dubnyk solidified a need in net, everyone played better around him, the team made the playoffs … and then were eliminated from the playoffs by the Chicago Blackhawks for the third year in a row, this time in a sweep.

Certainly it’s not all on Yeo — he doesn’t play in the games — but it’s hard to pinpoint another cause. Jason Pominville didn’t score for 22 straight games. The team has dealt with injuries. Dubnyk is off to a slow start. And yes, slumps happen to all teams, even the good ones.

But it’s always this time of year, and it’s hurting Minnesota’s chances to make the playoffs in a tough division, not to mention earn home-ice advantage in the postseason if they qualify. Even when Pominville isn’t scoring, he’s a former captain that joins Mikko Koivu, Parise and Suter in a room chock-full of leadership. Every team in the NHL deals with injuries. Dubnyk tends to play better later in the year. Thomas Vanek is having a better season. The young guys like Jonas Brodin, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, etc. are blossoming into bona-fide NHL players. And yes, there is a contingency of the Wild faithful that would like to see Parise wearing the C instead of Koivu, but that issue alone isn’t causing this annual swoon.

It’s also hard to blame Fletcher. The young players his organization has put together around Parise and Suter is impressive. He saved the season by dealing for Dubnyk, a move nobody outside the organization thought would work out as well as it did. But fair or unfair, if he relieves Yeo of his duties at any point, the spotlight will be placed on him. Todd Richards was removed under his watch, and after the second coach is fired, people tend to place the blame at the man in the GM’s chair.

Nobody is calling for Yeo’s head yet, nor should they. He’s worked out of this before, and the belief is that he can again. It’s also not entirely his fault, as rarely is the coach 100 percent at fault for a losing team. And, frankly, there aren’t many good replacements out there anyhow. This is probably something that would have to be addressed at the end of the season when more coaches would be available.

But it always comes down to the old line: you can’t fire the players, so you fire the coach. Besides, this is a talented group, many of whom are locked down long term. There is an opportunity cost in keeping the head man in place long-term, and that is the coaches at team passes on during these December swoons.

The Wild could have hired Peter Laviolette two years ago, for example, an experienced coach who won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and took the Philadelphia Flyers to the Finals in 2009. Many of the best teams in the Western Conference have experienced coaches: Chicago (Joel Quenneville), Los Angeles Kings (Darryl Sutter), Dallas Stars (Lindy Ruff).

Yeo’s job changed overnight when Parise and Suter were signed. He went from being expected to sneak a young team into the playoffs to coaching two of the best players in the league who were returning to the Midwest to win a Stanley Cup. The development of many of the Wild’s young players should be credited to him and his staff, but it’s also his job to keep things from going out of control in an extended slump.

Last year the goaltending needed to be upgraded, and nobody expected Dubnyk to be the catalyst he was. Right now the team appears to be in need of a boost, and this pattern has to be broken sooner or later. We’ve all seen this show before: December swoon, meltdown and then sudden rejuvenation, elimination by the Blackhawks. Lather, rinse, repeat. Same old story.

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