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What isn't going well for coach Mike Yeo's Wild these days? Going into Thursday night, the Wild leads the NHL in points despite a rash of damaging injuries and the Houston affiliate ranks second in the AHL.

Marlin Levison, Star Tribune file

Souhan: One good Wild turn leads to another, and another

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN
  • Star Tribune
  • December 15, 2011 - 10:25 PM

Wild winger Cal Clutterbuck was not happy. After a shootout loss to Chicago on Wednesday night at the X, he kept yelling all kinds of anagrams of his name. "Get off the logo!'' he repeated, offering a combination housekeeping tip and rallying cry for the best team in hockey.

Tradition holds that no one should throw their jersey on the floor, or step on the team symbol embroidered in the locker room carpet. Until this year, the Wild usually covered the logo to keep it clean. This year, it's as bare as the players' suddenly-demonstrable pride.

"I might have had a hand in that,'' coach Mike Yeo said. "We're real proud to be part of this organization, and that logo represents who we are and what we do.''

Protecting a picture of an amorphous green rodent might seem silly, but it's working for the Wild. The franchise hasn't been this promising since Andrew Brunette was slipping a puck past Patrick Roy back in 2003.

The owner, Craig Leipold, is willing to max out the payroll, and he fired Doug Risebrough, who had sucked talent out of the organization, and replaced him with ...

General Manager Chuck Fletcher, who has somehow improved both the current roster and his organizational depth and talent, and who gets credit for hiring ...

Yeo, who, like Fletcher, is on his way to winning an award for revitalizing a team that just last spring looked hopeless, and for getting the most out of ...

Veteran winger Dany Heatley, whom Fletcher traded for and who has proved to be a major upgrade over Martin Havlat, a major problem within the locker room last year, where now ...

Franchise player Mikko Koivu's all-around responsible game is now setting the example, one followed by ...

Kyle Brodziak, who might be playing better than anyone on the roster this season, with the possible exception of ...

Anyone who steps into goal. One sign of the organization's newfound depth is its top four goalies: Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, Matt Hackett and Houston Aeros standout Darcy Kuemper.

What isn't going well for the Wild these days? Going into Thursday night, the Wild leads the NHL in points despite a rash of damaging injuries and the Houston affiliate ranks second in the AHL. Fletcher has added a slew of top prospects who could emerge in the next two years, and realignment will, starting next season, finally favor a franchise that has chafed at long travel and forced rivalries in the Northwest Division.

Defenseman Nick Schultz, the Wild's longest-tenured player, sees a vastly different team than the one that limped to the end of last season, and not just because of the standings.

"It's probably been a surprise for everyone, how well we've done, and the confidence has built with each win,'' Schultz said. "Guys believe in each other here. It's a hard-working system, and I think the guys are coming in and putting in the time and the effort. It's paying off.''

Schultz has played for all three Wild coaches: Jacques Lemaire, Todd Richards and Yeo.

"Everybody was so concerned with scoring after Jacques left, with generating more offense and playing a more exciting brand of hockey,'' Schultz said. "Ultimately, any team that wins has to play good defense and have a good defensive system. We got away from that, and you find out that if you're not winning, it's not an exciting brand.

"Now we're getting back to playing well in our own end, and the offense is coming. It's definitely a lot different feeling than it has been.''

Lemaire and Yeo share no obvious similarities ... except one.

"To see Mike be this detail-oriented as a young coach, to see how consistent he is in wanting to play a certain way, that's how Jacques was,'' Schultz said. "All the drills we do in practice are specific to game situations, a lot like Jacques.''

Lemaire remains a singular figure in franchise history: a coach who brought the Wild unexpected early success and found a way to compete with mediocre rosters.

Yeo, too, is presiding over unexpected success. The difference is that he might be getting in on the ground floor of what could become one of the best organizations in hockey.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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