'Winning culture' taking hold with Minnesota Wild
Jun 11, 2013 at 5:00a ET
Fletcher had hardly slept the night before. Yeo had to be dealing with split feelings; reassured he would be getting another season as coach, but disappointed with not meeting expectations. The frustration of the season ending was evident in both men. The regret could be seen in the locker room later, too.
The disappointment Minnesota felt with its early playoff exit signified a difference.
A year earlier, the Wild were ending a season that was their worst since their second season in the league, the fourth of four straight years missing the playoffs. The feeling then was almost relief.
Minnesota had talked about changing the culture within the organization. The Wild gave Zach Parise and Ryan Suter those long-term mega-contracts. The young players were on the precipice of being NHL players.
The organization had expectations this past season.
Ending the playoff drought was appreciated. Ending the season in the first round of the playoffs was frustrating. Perspective and outlook for Minnesota is changing.
"Well, it's not exactly where we want it to be," Yeo said. "I know that there is, from our players, there's a different mentality around in the feeling after you lose a game. And I think that's a real important quality that a winning team has to have; a winning organization has to have."
Parise and Suter played a big role in changing the culture of the organization and effectively started the change, but there is more than just the addition of two players. The players and coaches believe in the change. Expectations are higher.
"For sure we got a lot of talent last summer," said goaltender Niklas Backstrom, who is a free agent this summer. "They're great players, but it's for everything. You're starting to see a winning culture getting in here. It's everyone expecting more out of themselves and from the player next to you. Too bad it's not going to happen overnight. Look at the good teams up there. It's not an easy ride. It's not a short ride. It's going to take time to get there and I think we're on the right path here.
"And even playing right to the end, playing that game in Colorado (the regular-season finale) was so much fun. It meant a lot and the last couple of years you go into the last couple of games and you didn't really play for a playoff spot."
Since winning their only division title in 2008, the Wild went from 98 points in 2007-08 to 89 points. From there, they slipped to 84, 86 and then 81 points in 2011-12. Minnesota has changed the front office staff and Yeo is the third coach in five years. Last season, the team was on pace for 93 wins. Scoring was up and the defense was still the team's strength.
The changes were tangible and the disappointment was real.
"It's still pretty fresh as far as the disappointment," center Matt Cullen said on that day in May as the team was leaving for the summer. "It's going to take some time for that to wear off. I think we have a team that's good enough to do more than I think we did, but for sure it's a step forward to make the playoffs. It's disappointing."
But transformation in expectations and perception are taking hold. The players said they felt the difference.
The changes could be seen in Parise, who missed the playoffs only one season with the New Jersey Devils. Parise's frustration and desire to alter the team's course was well apparent when Minnesota struggled at the end of the regular season.
More than his words as the as being the accountable voice in the locker room after losses, Parise tried to lead by example on the ice. Yeo feels the players, which were part of a roster turnover of at least 40 percent, were the change.
"More than anything else, it's the level of professionalism that the people, your athletes, come to the rink with every day," Yeo said. "It starts in the summer. It starts with how they train and how they prepare for the season ahead and we've seen a huge improvement in that area. It starts from the work and the commitment that they put in through a very long and grinding season and we've seen a very large improvement in that area too.
"We've got a great deal of character. We've got a great deal of leadership on this team. And I really believe that we're taking the right steps towards really having that winning attitude, that winning culture that you need."
Improvement was made, but the Wild weren't satisfied. They have higher expectations and believe the culture is changing within the organization.
"This is one of the reasons that I signed back here and even one of the better reasons is how excited I am today because I know that this hockey club is going in the right direction," goaltender Josh Harding said. "From a year ago to where we are right now, we're still not there. We still have a lot of work to do, but the guys that we brought in are class-act people. They work hard. They're great leaders. You can't say enough about what they all bring. You see them working that hard, everybody catches on and I love everybody in this room."
Follow Brian Hall on Twitter