I’m not freaking quitting here, and I’m not quitting on this group. I’m going to show some fight, and I believe in the group, but we better start believing in each other and better start delivering.
— Mike Yeo, hours before being fired, after a 4-2 loss to Boston, the Wild’s eighth in a row
In Mike Yeo’s first year as head coach of the Minnesota Wild, Kyle Brodziak was the team’s second leading goalscorer behind an aging Dany Heatley. His 44 points matched Mikko Koivu’s that season, and Koivu only played in 55 games. Jed Ortmeyer and Colton Gillies both dressed for 30-plus games. Nick Johnson dressed for 77.
The promise was in the future then, not the present. Marco Scandella played in 63 games that year; Jason Zucker six. A new wave of talent was coming, and Yeo had coached many of them in Houston, the Wild’s AHL affiliate at the time. He was a perfect hire: young and ambitious with a mind for advanced stats and a Stanley Cup on his resume from his time as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Unfortunately, as soon as Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were signed on July 4, 2012, he was put under pressure no first-year coach in his late 30’s would handle well. Owner Craig Leipold made it clear: He was aiming for a Stanley Cup. Now.
It would have been unfair to replace Yeo then and there. While a more veteran coach would have been better equipped to handle the job, Yeo deserved a fair shot at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to coach two of the league’s best players with a core of young talent surrounding them. In 2011-12, the Wild had the league’s best record halfway through the season before free falling and missing the playoffs altogether, and now his team had the firepower to not only qualify for the postseason, but put themselves in the Stanley Cup conversation.
As frustrating as Yeo’s first season with Parise and Suter was — they nearly missed the playoffs — it was an odd situation. The lockout shortened the season to 48 games, so not only was there a lot of attention on the team, but they had to squeeze a lot of games into a short period of time and get a lot of young players up to speed with a team that had lofty expectations.
If the Wild had missed the playoffs, Yeo may have been fired. But just making the playoffs and not getting swept — the Wild lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in five games — was an accomplishment on its own at the time given the circumstances.
Yeo should have been fired the next year, however. As soon as he stopped talking to his team midway through the season, it was clear that the job was too overwhelming for him. Six-game losing streaks happen, but tensions boiled over and a veteran coach would have been better suited to keep things from getting out of hand.
The lowly Buffalo Sabres saved Minnesota that year, giving them the much-needed win they were craving and vaulted them into the playoffs. They advanced to the second round for the first time since 2002-03, but again they lost to Chicago, this time in six games. Forward progress was made, sure, but the Wild didn’t make nearly $200 million investment in Parise and Suter to get to the second round of the playoffs year after year.
Last season admittedly presented unique challenges. There was a mumps epidemic. Keith Ballard had his career ended on a dirty hit. There were a lot of injuries in general. And Parise and Suter tragically lost their fathers.
But Nino Niederreiter and Zucker had breakout seasons that year, as did Marco Scandella. Matt Dumba registered eight goals in 58 games. The young core was coming together, even if Jason Pominville didn’t reach 20 goals and Thomas Vanek had a rough first half in his first season in Minnesota.
The goaltending wasn’t great, but it also didn’t help that in nearly every press conference he backhandedly placed a disproportionate amount of blame on young goaltender Darcy Kuemper, crushing his confidence even as he said he didn’t want to do so.
This season there was no outbreak of mumps or rash of injuries, however, and the team predictably swooned again halfway through the year — this time worse than ever.
Fletcher deserves some of the blame, of course. Signing Niklas Backstrom to a three-year, $10.25 million contract before the 2013-14 season only served to put the team in salary cap hell. Dealing for Matt Moulson also didn’t work out. And this team doesn’t have a bona fide No. 1 center.
But in general Fletcher gave Yeo enough pieces to succeed. Charlie Coyle is breaking out this year and he’s locked into a longterm deal. So is Scandella. Niederreiter and Zucker have had 20-goal seasons. Vanek is a former 40-goal scorer. Pominville had 30 goals in 2013-14. Dumba looks like a future All-Star. The team has two good goaltenders and a slew of former captains.
Hindsight is 20/20 on all this, of course. Lindy Ruff would have been a great fit in 2013, having coached Pominville and Vanek in Buffalo, but it would have been hard to fire a coach that led the Wild to the playoffs for the first time in four years. And Peter Laviolette, who won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2005-06 season and took the Philadelphia Flyers to the Finals in 2009-10, was available in December 2013 when Yeo had his meltdown. Both are no longer available and unlikely to be in the offseason.
As for now, interim coach John Torchetti is in an unenviable position after being called up from Iowa. He has to be this year’s Devan Dubnyk, only from behind the bench, not on the ice. He needs to spur another run and hope to bring a meaningful change of culture in order to allow his young players to thrive.
Yeo will land on his feet somewhere. He has Stanley Cup credentials, a mind for advanced stats in a changing game and nearly five years of head coaching experience under his belt. He tried nearly everything to spur the Wild during their annual swoons: mixing and matching lines, rants at practice and the silent treatment. He will learn from his mistakes and likely be older and wiser in his next run as a head coach. People here will likely pull for him going forward.
It’s hard to find fault in the Wild’s patience with all of this, especially in professional sports, where everyone overreacts to everything. But they’ve long needed a veteran coach who’s been through losing streaks and individual player droughts, who’s dealt with pressure and the madness of hockey fans before. They need someone who not only makes changes, but has answers — something that Yeo ran out of this year, just as he did back in 2013.
Cold Omaha is the sports section on 92KQRS.com, 93X.com and 105TheVibe.com. Follow us @ColdOmahaMN.