Six straight losses to end December 2013 could be an interesting footnote in Minnesota Wild history.
Minnesota had lost four in a row on the road and come back home and lost the first two games of a four-game homestand. The rumblings about head coach Mike Yeo’s job status grew louder. The discontent from the fan base could be read on Twitter. Reports even said Yeo was one loss away from being fired.
Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher didn’t flinch, and the organization is better for it.
"The funny thing, at the exact point of the year when you thought we’d fall apart, we actually became a team," Fletcher said last week in formally announcing Yeo’s three-year contract extension. "There’s a lot of work that went into that and Mike and his staff deserve a lot of credit."
Yeo proceeded to guide Minnesota out of its losing streak by winning seven of the next nine games, even while dealing with injuries to Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jared Spurgeon and Josh Harding.
The defensive structure Yeo has instilled since becoming the Wild’s head coach in 2011 took root and helped Minnesota overcome unpredictability at goaltender with one of the best defenses in the league.
The Wild made the playoffs for the second straight season and players credited Yeo for keeping the team prepared for every moment in the postseason against the upstart Colorado Avalanche and defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
"There were times where the wheels could have come off and he kept it together," defenseman Ryan Suter said after Game 6 against Chicago. "He was always level-headed. I think he did a great job and I think we’re going to have a bright future with him."
Fletcher watched closely as Yeo navigated the rest of 2014 following the troubled 2013 finish and rewarded Yeo with a contract extension. The continuity and potential creates the framework for sustained success.
The league’s youngest coach at 40 years old, Yeo has a chance to continue to grow alongside one of the youngest teams in the league. Only the New York Rangers and Colorado Avalanche had a younger average age among all skaters for playoff teams.
The situation is just as Fletcher hoped when he hired Yeo in 2011.
Fletcher knew the NHL had changed and understood development of young players was paramount to building the organization for sustained success.
The Wild had to win too, but the idea was that the young Yeo was also the right coach to develop a growing crop of highly-regarded prospects following a run to the Calder Cup finals with Houston in 2011.
Yeo has grown every step of the way as a first-time NHL head coach — a 2011 start with the league’s best record and eventual fade down the stretch, the first playoff appearance in five years for Minnesota in 2013 and the second round for only the second time in team history this past season.
"The team is improved," Yeo said last week. "I believe that I’ve improved as a coach. Like Chuck said, there’s an awful lot of work to be done. We have to keep improving. I have to keep improving. The goal, the idea behind those two things, was to give yourself a chance to be successful every year. Like we said, we know that there’s still a lot of work to be done, but we definitely believe we’re on the right track."
Continuing along the track together — coach and players — should prove to be the right move for the organization; all possible because Fletcher didn’t overreact to a six-game losing streak in December.
"There’s certainly a team feeling around here, a feeling that we’re all working together, that we’re all pulling in the same direction and there’s no question that’s huge," Yeo said.