I always say the most interesting team to cover is one in crisis mode, and the Wild, with 13 losses in the past 20 games and eight in the past 10, has officially hit that juncture of the season.
Last year’s annual winter crisis magically turned around when the calendar turned from 2013 to 2014. This year’s crisis is only deepening with the calendar turn. After beating Toronto last Friday, the Wild responded by getting humiliated in Dallas and then losing last night’s game against the San Jose Sharks in overtime despite a better effort.
Coach Mike Yeo wanted the Wild to respond to the loss though with a great practice in preparation for Thursday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that has ousted the Wild in the past two postseasons.
Instead, Yeo stopped practice early on, uncharacteristically pulled the team to the far end of the rink away from the ink-stained wretches and lit into his group demanding more effort and execution.
The yuck continued. Moments after captain Mikko Koivu was bumped to the ice and had trouble getting to the feet, the Wild captain, whom I’ve noticed off the rink has been playing through a lower-body injury the past week, slowly got up, skated to the bench, cracked his stick against the glass, then chopped it in half as he marched down the runway angrily.
Yeo immediately had the players line the width of the ice on the penalty-box side and skated them so hard without pucks, I heard Herb Brooks in my head yelling, “Again.”
Then, the fun began. Yeo gathered the team around him by the referee’s crease, slammed his stick on the ice and unleashed a fury during an expletive-laced tirade that had to do with how bad the team is playing and then they have the audacity to show up and “practice like this!” He lit into them for about 60 seconds, screaming his head off.
He then took an about-face, had a couple words with assistant coach Andrew Brunette, skated toward the visiting bench, slammed his own stick hard against the glass, skated toward the Wild bench and stormed off the ice. At that point, assistant GM Brent Flahr and director of hockey administration, who were watching from the stands, left, too. GM Chuck Fletcher was not at practice, nor was owner Craig Leipold, who planned to attend but didn’t.
Fletcher has declined an interview request.
The rest of practice was run by the assistant coaches. Assistant coach Rick Wilson had a few one-on-ones with veterans like Matt Cooke and Thomas Vanek.
“I think Yeozie finally lost it here,” Vanek said afterward. “He’s been pretty good with us, staying upbeat. We played well last night. It’s not good when you lose a hockey game. That was his message. He didn’t like how some of us practiced and came out, so those things happen.”
Asked if he’s ever seen a coach melt down like that, Vanek laughed and said, “Yeah, I played for Lindy [Ruff in Buffalo] for a long time, so I’ve seen it before. [Yeo’s] frustrated just as is many guys in here, so I think we’ll be OK. I think it was maybe needed. We had a terrible game in Dallas. I thought we responded pretty well. We’ll respond again tomorrow and play hard.
Vanek said Yeo’s “been great. There’s only so much you can say before you’ll kind of snap. I think it’s good. I think these guys will, I think we’ll respond just fine.”
On why he melted down, “We weren’t good enough. And we’re not in a position where we can come in and be let alone decent in practice, bad at practice. I’m not going to accept that.”
Asked if he’s worried that if the team doesn’t respond this time (remember he did something very similar at the start of a practice in Arizona last month) that he has lost the team, Yeo said, “No. I’m not worried about that. I told you I’m not going to accept that. I’m not going to accept guys – we played for the most part a good game last game. We lost the game. We come to the rink today and what are we going to have a practice like that? That’s not good enough. I know one thing – we can hang our heads, we can feel sorry for ourselves, we can point fingers, we can do whatever we want. But those types of things are not the types of things that winners do and those types of things do not help you get out of something like this. I know what I’m going to control and I’m going to make sure that I bring it.”
Part of me wondered how orchestrated this was when today’s stories were all about the goalies and he wanted to cram into his team that it’s everybody, not just Darcy Kuemper.
“That’s everything that we’re in right now,” Yeo said. “We’re in a difficult spot and we’ve got a tough road ahead of ourselves. We might have guys out of the lineup and that’s fine. But the one thing you can always control is your work ethic and your attitude and everything else follows suit after that.”
“We played a crappy game in Dallas and aside from that I’ve been happy for the most part with our games post Christmas. Do we just accept that hey we got a point? We lost the game but we played well? No. We can’t. We have to be better. The way we were practicing today, we weren’t practicing with the purpose of getting better. We could’ve just went through the practice and we might’ve been fine tomorrow, but that’s not the attitude that we need as a team right now. We need the attitude that we can’t just accept—and it’s going to be hard. We might play well again and we might lose. I don’t know. But whatever it is, every day we come back to the rink and we’ve got to find a way to be better.”
Darcy Kuemper left practice today with illness or injury. Two days in a row now Kuemper managed not to talk to the media, including after last night’s game.
Yeo said it’s something minor and then subtly inserted, “as far as I’m concerned.” I haven’t gotten an update yet on that, but the pressure is getting to Kuemper, that's very clear, and is clearly trying to avoid us the past few days.
On Koivu, Yeo said, “He left hurt. I don’t have an update on that but I did see that he returned at the end.”
He did, but then he left again.
On Marco Scandella, Yeo said, “Upper body injury and you can count him out for the game tomorrow.”
With all these roster uncertainties, I'd assume we'll see some callups.
On Zach Parise, Yeo said, “I’m just giving him space right now.”
I’d think it’s doubtful he plays tomorrow. As of now, J.P. was hanging on, but he is incommunicative and it’s not good as he lays in hospice with family and friends at his side. I’ll update once it is official through the family or team. This is one story I’m not willing to “pursue” and be first on.
On Yeo: “Clearly not happy with us, deservedly so. We come out, have a pretty poor practice, execution’s not there, our heads weren’t in it, it was deserving.”
Frustration: “It’s definitely high, but I think coming to the rink, practice is a step that we need to do and we’ve got to make sure that whenever we get the opportunities to try to get better, we have to take advantage of it.”
Needed? “I hope so. Hopefully, you hate to think it takes something like that to wake us up, but maybe that’s what’s needed. We just have to make sure we come ready to do what we need to do tomorrow.”
Has he seen such a meltdown: “I think everybody’s seen it at some point in their career. You go through a lot of highs and lows. It was deserving though. The group wasn’t ready today.”
“Bottom line is we can’t come out and have a bad day of practice or a bad morning skate or whatever it is. We can’t afford that right now. That’s just the message he’s trying to get across right now. It just shows that he’s passionate about this group and what we can do, and if we’re not living up to that, he has every right to be upset about it.”
Does this team still believe in Yeo? “I know I do, and I guarantee I speak for every guy in this room. It’s a tough thing. Every team’s going to go through tough stretches, some longer than others and you hope to find a way to get out of them sooner rather than later. Coach Yeo has done a good job. The rest of the coaching staff has done a great job of making sure we’re buying into the system and doing what we need to do. The system works. We’ve seen it work numerous times a lot. Right now is a tough time, we’ve got to stick together and find a way to get out of it.”
Has he seen something like Yeo’s meltdown: “It’s tough to remember. But I’ve been a hockey player all my life. Probably not.”
How does the team respond? “Even without that, we know we can play a lot better, everyone in this locker room. There are a couple guys who are happy with their game, but there are a lot of players, myself included that want to be better. When things don’t go well for a team, it’s always easy to look left or right for excuses. But like Jacques Lemaire always use to say, just worry about yourself and that I think is for every player here – just get the best game out of yourself. For me, it’s just about worrying about making sure I can play at the level I can play at.”
Did he feel Yeo would soon implode? “I don’t know if you sense anything coming. But for sure when you look at the past couple months, things haven’t really gone well here. Things haven’t gone our way so there’s a lot of pressure on everyone. Practice wasn’t as sharp as it should be at this point of the season. We didn’t do the right things so for sure you understand the frustration. As players, we have to make sure we’re ready every time we go out there to help ourselves as players and help the team to get better. We have to make sure when we step on the ice – we’re fortunate to play in the nhl – so every time you step on the ice you have to get better and work for the team.”
Lastly, as of this morning, I was entirely confident that Yeo’s job was completely safe. According to sources, Fletcher is actively looking for a goaltender and that’s where the Wild believes most of its problems lay right now.
We’ll see if Yeo’s meltdown changes his personal situation. The team best respond, I’d think.
I'll be on KFAN in a second, KFAN Thursday morning and Fox Sports North Thursday night.