ST. PAUL, Minn. — With the Minnesota Wild struggling to the finish of the regular season, Mike Yeo didn’t have his head in the sand.
Minnesota’s second-year coach heard the rumblings about his job security, but knew he couldn’t get wrapped up in the unknown while his team was fighting for its first playoff berth in five years and then facing the President’s Trophy winners in the first round. He took the questions about whether he felt safe and had no good answers.
“Well, I’d be an idiot if I didn’t hear some of the questions I was being asked,” Yeo said Saturday as he met the media knowing he will remain as coach of the Wild following their 4-1 series loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve got the best job in the world and, unfortunately, that is a part of it. So it’s always a possibility. That said, I really believe in what we’re doing here. I really believe we’re going in the right direction. Love to speed it up, but we are where we are. We just have to be ready to push harder and be ready to go a little further next year.”
Expectations for Minnesota and for Yeo were immense following last summer’s shopping spree that landed the two biggest names in free agency in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. The Wild’s eighth-place finish in the Western Conference and then five-game loss to Chicago in the playoffs was a disappointment and general manager Chuck Fletcher and Yeo said the loss still stung two days later.
Yet, the Fletcher didn’t think the speculation about Yeo’s job was fair.
“I find it amusing,” Fletcher said. “We were one of the most improved teams in the league. Every statistical metric besides penalty-killing we’re better in, particularly our defensive zone coverage was so much better this year. We gave up over four shots a game less than what we did last year. That’s dramatic. That’s a dramatic improvement.”
In the first season under Yeo, the Wild surprisingly raced out to the league’s best record in December 2011. Then injuries hit, testing the team’s lack of depth and Minnesota faltered to a 12th place finish in the West, was outscored by the league’s second-largest margin, and finished with the fewest goals by a team since the 2004-05 lockout.
Coming back from the lockout this past offseason with a significantly altered team, the Wild were slow out of the gates before finding their way and going 17-6-1 from the middle of February through the end of March that had Minnesota leading the Northwest Division. Then the Wild faltered at the end for a second-straight season, meaning a matchup with the league’s best regular-season team in Chicago in the first round.
Fletcher said he can’t overreact to the emotion of the season’s end in his role as general manager. Minnesota improved nearly across the board in most statistics. Scoring was up, the Wild outshot their opponents and were one of the stingiest defensive teams, giving up the sixth fewest shots in the league.
And Fletcher noted the transition with the shortened training camp, condensed season and the league’s toughest travel schedule, all with a team that added new players in Parise, Suter, Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Brett Clark, Jake Dowell, Mikael Granlund, Darcy Kuemper, Torrey Mitchell, Jason Pominville, Mike Rupp, and Zenon Konopka all playing for Minnesota for the first time.
“(Yeo) had very limited opportunities to implement and work on systems, or work on specialty teams and we have a 45 percent turnover on our roster,” Fletcher said. “He was dealt a tough hand relative to teams that had a lot of returning players and had a lot of continuity. We were changing things, we had new players and the month of March I don’t even remember how many practices we had. We either played or we had a travel day or we had a mandatory CBA off day.
“So you can’t always make adjustments through video and through meetings. Some guys react well that way, but some guys have to go out and do the repetition. Everyone learns differently. So I think they did a very good job under the circumstances. I think he’s a good young coach and he’s our coach.”
And the continuity should help the Wild, entering a full offseason to work together.
Minnesota fired coach Todd Richards after two years before hiring Yeo. Firing Yeo wouldn’t have meant starting over again.
“We’ve had a lot of change here,” Fletcher said. “Some of it is obviously because we’ve struggled. We’ve changed a lot of players. We’ve changed a lot of staff and at some point you need to allow everybody to get better. We all need to get better. We lost to Chicago four games to one, obviously we all can get better. Mike can be a better coach. Our players can be better players. I can be a better manager. You can’t just keep churning every year or two with players and staff. You’ve got to have some semblance of continuity and I think that will help us going into camp.”