The day (Thursday) and time (1 p.m.) didn’t escape Mike Yeo.
If the Wild had beaten the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday, the coach would have just been wrapping up his morning-skate availability at the United Center in preparation for a Game 7 rather than standing in front of the assembled media at Xcel Energy Center talking about what could have been.
“I wish we were playing a hockey game tonight,” said Yeo, the disappointment still in his voice and on his face after the Wild’s season-ending overtime loss two days before. “I’m still a little bit bitter.
“You wake up in the morning and you think, ‘OK, I’m on my way to work.’ You have a season. It’s long, it’s hard. There’s a lot of incredibly great emotions that go along with some of the tough parts, and then it just comes to a grinding halt.”
Yeo admitted that he has watched Patrick Kane’s winning goal “too many times over and over again” and joked that he’s “surprised I haven’t gone down there and broken the darn” partition that caused the fluky bounce that led to the Wild’s demise.
“There’s a lot of things to feel good about, but in the end, we didn’t win,” Yeo said. “I think it’s important that pretty soon here we start turning our sights toward next year.”
Expectations will rise next season.
On Thursday, players took their end-of-the year physicals, began getting their offseason fitness programs and started going through exit interviews with Yeo and General Manager Chuck Fletcher. On Friday, Fletcher and players will talk to the media before heading off their separate ways for the summer.
The contracts of the entire coaching staff expire June 30. That Yeo held his own news conference is evidence Fletcher wants him to remain coach.
They will meet next week to discuss a contract. Unlike three years ago, when Yeo was promoted from the franchise’s Houston farm team, this contract will require actual negotiations. Yeo’s first deal came when he was handed a three-year term and salary on par with rookie coaches.
In three seasons, the 40-year-old is 104-82-26 in the regular season and made the playoffs twice.
“There’s plenty of time to sort that out,” Yeo said of his contract. “There’s a lot of what-ifs and there’s a bit of an empty feeling that there was more hanging there for us. But what I 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.”
The Wild scored only two goals in Games 5 and 6 against Chicago, both by rookie Erik Haula. Yet, in both games, the Wild outchanced the Blackhawks. It didn’t lose Tuesday because of a bad bounce off a stanchion. It lost because it didn’t capitalize on its chances.
The Wild’s season-long lack of scoring finish was an issue, but Yeo said, “We’re not sitting around just saying, ‘OK, we’ve arrived.’ As a coaching staff, we will take a hard look at our game and see the areas we need to improve.”
Yeo stood up for veterans Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson, who combined for four goals in the playoffs, saying “it becomes tougher and tougher to score in the playoffs” and they were contributing in other areas.
He lauded his players for the price they paid. Charlie Coyle, for one, played with two separated shoulders. Yeo wouldn’t disclose any specific injuries, although Fletcher might Friday.
“A lot of guys were battling through things,” Yeo said. “It’s pretty impressive for them to lay it out on the line the way that they did.”
Mikael Granlund broke through this season. Youngsters such as Coyle, Haula and Nino Niederreiter came on strong late in the year and in the playoffs. In exit meetings, Yeo plans to tell all his youngsters that he expects them to come to next fall’s training camp with the objective of becoming difference-makers.
“The real potential for growth in our team is our young players,” Yeo said. “As our young players continue to get better, our team will continue to get better. We play in the toughest division in the NHL. … Next year is going to be hard again. We should have higher goals, we should have higher expectations for ourselves, but we have to know it’s going to be hard.
“For me, it starts right now in the offseason, how you prepare, how you train. That’s your foundation for the season you’re going to have next year.”
Yeo said he feels the Wild outplayed the Blackhawks and could have advanced to the conference finals. The Wild feels incomplete by not reaching its goal.
“We could have [won the Cup] this year. That’s the hard part for me. I know it’s hard, but we could have,” Yeo said. “We were playing great hockey night in night out, consistent hockey. Never perfect, but it never is. We’re playing the best teams in the league.
“I believe that we’ve taken some real steps toward that goal, but I’m also realistic that it’s really hard. It’s really hard. We should look forward to that challenge. That’s what makes it so great. That’s why one team’s left standing at the end of the year, and they’re happy and everybody else is trying to get that way.”