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.
— Wild GM Chuck Fletcher after hiring Mike Yeo as head coach in 2011
David Blatt is going to bring some of the most innovating approaches found in professional basketball anywhere on the globe.
— Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert upon hiring Blatt in 2014
It may seem funny to many Minnesota Wild fans, especially hockey die-hards that could care less about basketball, that they should be following what’s going on with the Cleveland Cavaliers right now. After all, it’s a different sport played in a different city. But the situations have some similarities worth paying attention to.
In 2011 Mike Yeo was hired to coach many of the same players he had coached in Houston, where the Wild’s AHL team was located at the time. It was an impressive young core, one that was supposed to grow together under the tutelage of a man who was on the bench when the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
Yeo’s job task was simple: Turn these guys into bona fide NHL players and sneak them into the playoffs as soon as possible so they can get the experience. Yes, over time pressure would ramp up, but at the time he was hired, the Wild was mired in mediocrity. The team had just got over its honeymoon period after bringing hockey back to the Twin Cities and had lost some of its luster after a couple losing seasons. Simply put, it was a boring team.
Things changed a year later, of course, when Minnesota signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter on July 4 of 2012. All of a sudden, owner Craig Leipold and general manager Chuck Fletcher had breathed life into the organization. There was excitement. The boys were coming home: Parise from Bloomington and Suter from nearby Madison, Wis.
It also put a lot of pressure on Yeo. Overnight his job went from trying to get a young team into the playoffs as a late seed to winning it all with two of the league’s biggest stars. “I see a Stanley Cup championship,” said Leipold at the time. “My hope is that it happens soon.”
Compare that to Cleveland’s situation for a second. David Blatt is hired in 2014 to coach a moribund Cavaliers team with a lot of young talent to relevancy. His job description: Get Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Andrew Wiggins into the playoffs. Then LeBron Jamesannounced he was coming home, and the whole narrative was flipped on its head. “One day, David Blatt was coaching a young and struggling team that had fired two coaches in two years,”wrote Joe Posnanski, a Cleveland native, in reaction to Blatt’s firing. “The next day, he was coaching the best player on planet Earth and the most-anticipated team in the entire world.”
A couple caveats here.
First of all, there is not really a LeBron James of hockey — or at least the Wild don’t have him. The closest comparison would be Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos. But as great as those players are, none of them can single-handedly influence a hockey team the way James can a basketball team. There’s more players in hockey, and they spend less time on the ice.
Secondly, there is also the issue of scale. James is an international superstar. Parise and Suter are more like local celebrities. Sure, hockey is an international sport and both players are known in the right circles, but the pressure on the Wild to bring Minnesota its first championship since 1991 doesn’t even compare to the spotlight on James and his mission to bring Cleveland its first title since 1964.
Still, Yeo is under a lot of pressure, and as we all know, he’s cracked a couple times. Those traits that Fletcher loved about him have been left by the wayside in the now annual Wild Mid-Season Swoon. He’s a very good communicator: Yeo stopped talking to the team in 2013 during the first annual Wild Swoon. He’s a very good teacher: He stopped instructing the team in the middle of a practice in 2014, swore at them, made them do Herbies and then smashed his stick on the boards before leaving the rink during the second Swoon. By the third one he just copped to it: “Same story,” he said in late November. “Here we are again.”
He’s human, and we all get that. Pressure gets to everyone. The issue with Yeo, again, isn’t that he isn’t a great hockey mind — he’s been widely praised for using advanced puck possession metrics — or that he isn’t qualified to be an NHL coach. This just might not be a good first job. The old Wild where there were lots of young guys and no expectations? Absolutely. But not when his expensive veteran players are exiting their prime years, or in some cases have already peaked, and his young players are coming of age but not improving.
Age has to be considered here. He’s 42, a year younger than Jaromir Jagr. And instead of calming everyone down when things are spiraling out of control, he adds to the emotional turmoil in the locker room — or at least doesn’t diffuse it.
It’s not as though he is buddy-buddy with the players. In fact his straight-laced, uptight demeanor suggests he intentionally isn’t, kind of like the young college professor who overdresses to avoid looking like his or her students, but he gets caught up in the maelstrom after losing streaks or tough losses all too often.
It’s not coincidence that the best teams in the Western Conference have veteran coaches — Joel Quenneville in Chicago, Darryl Sutter in Los Angeles, Lindy Ruff in Dallas — they’ve been there and done that, and they are much older than their players. They can rise above the emotional chaos and keep things from boiling over. Five-game losing streaks happen; they become a big deal when things get out of control. And every year things get out of control with the Wild in the middle of the season.
It’s less about the numbers — games lost, by how much, etc. — and more about the reaction afterwards. Are the inmates running the asylum? In Minnesota’s case, yes, all too often.
Here’s why the Blatt case matters: The Cavaliers made a statement by firing their coach after being blown out by the Golden State Warriors, the team that beat them in the Finals last year and a favorite to win it again this year. They said they are not happy with just having the best record in the Eastern Conference, or making the playoffs, or going to the Finals.
They want a championship. Period.
Maybe they’re just not good enough. Maybe Kevin Love isn’t the right fit. Maybe Kyrie Irving is too inexperienced. Maybe Golden State is just plain better. But they’re not going to try and make their push with a coach who was hired for a different job. “The Cleveland Cavaliers have to win the NBA title, and they’re probably not good enough to do it,” wrote Posnanski. “Somebody was going to take the fall for that. That somebody was always going to be David Blatt. This was his destiny the moment that he won the lottery (by getting James).”
Maybe the Wild are just plain less talented than the Blackhawks. Maybe even Scotty Bowman couldn’t get this team past Chicago. After all, an informal list of impact players that are not meeting expectations this season includes: Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Dumba and until his recent hot streak, Charlie Coyle.
But instead of nitpicking the roster, which is generally the criticism of this team, why not bring in a veteran coach to coach this core, the one that Parise and Suter were so psyched about that they came to Minnesota, and see what he can do with it? If that doesn’t work, then place the blame on the players and ultimately Fletcher.
Look, if one or two players is underachieving, that’s on them. At 33, Pominville may just be declining. At 32, Vanek’s prime years are likely behind him as well. Dumba, 21, is green, but possesses a lot of upside. Granlund, 23, may just never become a first-line center — or at least one that is capable of reliably putting the puck in the net.
But when a lot of players are underachieving? That’s probably the coach. The system. The environment that is created by their leader. It’s easy to see why Yeo was a great minor league coach for the Wild: He gets his guys NHL-ready. But it probably will take someone else to allow them to thrive at the game’s highest level.
In Cleveland, the common sentiment was that Blatt was in over his head and James ultimately wanted him gone (something James himself refutes). If he was angling in that direction, the Cavs organization ultimately caved in. Like the Cavs, the Wild have superstars signed to long-term contracts that have a lot of sway in the organization. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Suter was questioning the team’s leadership.
“We’re looking for leadership. We need leaders,” he said in early December. “We need guys, coaching staff, players, we need people that are going to lead. It does no good to pout and get [ticked] off at each other. You’ve got to come together and dig out of this. Now’s when you need leadership more than ever. It’s easy to coach and be a leader when things are going good.”
The Wild have four current or former captains on their locker room: Mikko Koivu, Parise, Suter and Pominville. Odds are they’re not going to cut or trade those guys. They could tamper with the young core, and Jonas Brodin and Dumba are apparently on the trading block, but it’s too early to dismantle the team. Changing coaches is relatively easy and common practice.
Last year the team took a different route, addressing a need at goaltender by picking up Devan Dubnyk and riding that wave until they were eliminated by Chicago. This year that might not happen. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins broke his hand. Jonathan Drouin is in the middle of a feud with the Tampa Bay Lightning and looks like a prima donna. A Steven Stamkos trade is highly unlikely. What you see may be what you get with the Wild.
That doesn’t mean the team should fire Yeo right now. He deserves to finish out the season, unless the team is in jeopardy of missing the playoffs. Maybe the team will pull of a trade for Drouin and it will propel them through the second half like last year. Maybe they’ll catch fire in the playoffs and eliminate the Blackhawks. Maybe they’ll win a Cup.
But if we see the same thing again — hot second half, elimination by Chicago — it’s time for a change.