ST. PAUL, Minn. — For Minnesota Wild head coach Mike Yeo, Thursday started like any other day.
Yeo was dressed in his usual practice gear. Only, there would be no practice. Instead of preparing for what would have been a Game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks, Yeo addressed the media Thursday afternoon to recap a season of growth and, eventually, disappointment for his team.
"To be perfectly honest, I’m still a little bit bitter," Yeo said. "There’s still a little bit of disbelief. You wake up in the morning and you think ‘OK, I’m on my way to work.’ It’s obviously a season, it’s long, it’s hard, but it was a lot of incredibly great emotions that go along with some of the tough parts. And then it just comes to a grinding halt. So still a little bit of disbelief, I guess."
Yeo and the Wild will have time to reflect on the season in which they took another step toward their eventual goal of winning the Stanley Cup.
For Yeo, he hasn’t spent much time thinking about the season or looking to the future. The remnants of Tuesday’s Game 6 loss to Chicago, in which the puck bounced awkwardly off the end boards right to Blackhawks star Patrick Kane for the overtime game-winning goal, are still fresh.
"There’s a lot of what-ifs and a bit of an empty feeling that there was more hanging there for us," Yeo said. "But what I do want (the players) to take out of it is the belief that we can beat anybody. We have an end result in mind here and that’s to win the Stanley Cup. We’ve been building toward that, and we should feel that it’s an attainable goal for ourselves."
Yeo’s presence on Thursday would indicate he is part of Minnesota’s future.
Yeo’s contract expires on June 31. After taking the Wild to the second round of the playoffs for just the second time in the team’s history, Yeo’s position would seem secure. But he said he’s only just begun talks with general manager Chuck Fletcher regarding his personal status and the two would talk again next week.
Asked if his press conference Thursday is a good sign Yeo will return or if he’s received some assurance from Fletcher, Yeo replied: "There hasn’t been a conversation where he’s said that. But there’s been every indication. We’ve talked about plans going forward. We’re all just trying to wrap our head around everything about the season. We kind of have different priorities right now as far as making sure that we take care of the players. And that stuff, there’s plenty of time to sort that out."
The growth from the entire team in the playoffs reflects well on Yeo, who has also grown along the way in his first NHL head-coaching job.
"I think he did a great job," defenseman Ryan Suter said after Game 6. "There were times where the wheels could have come off, and he kept it together. 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."
Yeo hasn’t given himself much time for self-reflection. He said he will take a few days for fishing near his Canada home to decompress and begin to think about the job he’s done, as well as the development of his team.
"In all fairness, the last couple days there’s too much emotion around it to sit down and think about that," Yeo said. "I haven’t had a lot of time to sit down and think about it during the season. I think that next week we’ll start to get into evaluations of our team and areas that we need to improve and whatnot. But likewise, I always spend some time on myself and what’s going on in my notes, reflecting on things that I’ve done, or didn’t do or need to do better.
"It’s hard to say, to be honest with you, but I do feel that I’ve improved. I do feel that I’ve grown as a coach. And I do know a big part of that is a desire and a hunger to get better as a coach. So I know that I have to get better."
The price paid: Players are going through exit physicals and season-ending meetings with coaches and management and injuries are starting to be revealed.
Yeo didn’t want to get into specifics regarding injuries or which players have been playing through injury, because physicals were still being completed.
A source confirmed to FoxSportsNorth.com the Star Tribune report that second-year forward Charlie Coyle was playing through two separated shoulders at the end of the postseason. Yeo saw the effort put forth by injured players.
"As a staff we’re very proud; it’s hard to win," Yeo said. "There’s a price that has to be paid, so when you see your guys paying that price it’s really impressive to us and it’s a good learning opportunity. It’s a good learning experience to go through that. Like I said before, my biggest hope is that the players start to feel that pride. Of course it’s hard and of course it hurts, but there’s a pride inside winners that exists, that fuels them. That’s what we want to keep building off of."
Haula to play for Finland: Rookie forward Erik Haula, who had a breakthrough postseason with four goals and was one of the team’s most consistent forwards, was added to Finland’s roster for the IIHF World Championships. He traveled to Minsk, Belarus to join his native country’s team, which is 1-2 in the tournament preliminaries that go through May 20.
Haula, a Pori, Finland native who played collegiately at the University of Minnesota, added three assists in 13 playoff games while also playing a key defensive role for the Wild as a checking forward. In his first professional season after leaving the Gophers, Haula had six goals, nine assists and was a franchise-rookie-record plus-14 in 46 games with Minnesota this year.
"I’m really pleased that he’s going," Yeo said. "For me, it’s a continuation of his development. This year has been a great year for him in that regard, the steps that he’s taken. Now to have the opportunity to go over and play for his country, to play against some of the greatest competition in the world, to do it at that stage, I think we all saw what that did for (Wild center Mikael Granlund) this year and hopefully it will have a similar effect on him."
This will be the fourth time Haula has played for Team Finland in international play. Granlund, who was one of the stars of this past year’s Olympics for Finland, won’t play during the World Championships this year.
"With Granny, it was a long, hard year for him," Yeo said. "You look at what he did for his country in the Olympics and the grind that he went through. I think it’s important for him right now to make sure that he takes some time and rests, and gets back to 100 percent physically."
Message for the fans: The Wild’s successful run during the playoffs on their home ice was aided by the support of the Xcel Energy Center fans. The building was very loud and became known around the league for proving a home-ice advantage for Minnesota during the playoffs.
Asked if he had a message for the fans, Yeo said: "Thank you is the message that I have to our fans. Thank you for the support that we had . . . we brought new meaning to home-ice advantage. And that’s why it would be unbelievable for us to have a great season next year and try to earn home ice in playoff series, because it is such a huge advantage. The building was electric. From the time the puck dropped, just the emotion, the noise, our players just fed off it. It’s incredibly motivating. It does so much for the momentum swings of your hockey team in a positive way. And outside of the building, just the city was abuzz. The support that we had, the way things grew and the way things kind of evolved with the fan base was phenomenal. Certainly it is, for myself personally and the group, it’s incredibly motivating knowing that that’s there and wanting to keep moving on with that. That’s my message: ‘Thank you, and let’s keep going.’"
As for that partition: Yeo said he’s tried to avoid looking at the final play and bad bounce which resulted in Kane’s series-clinching goal, but it’s "replayed in my mind."
Regarding the stanchion which led to the awkward bounce, Yeo joked, "I’m surprised that I haven’t gone down there and broken the darn thing."