The Wild ended a four-year playoff drought last spring when it pulled out a must-win game at Colorado to grab the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Minnesota looks to build on that this season, albeit with a very different-looking team. Following an offseason that was a far cry from 2012 when the Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year deals, General Manager Chuck Fletcher had to work to get cap-compliant.
That led to the subtraction of four key forwards — Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard — and defenseman Tom Gilbert. The Wild signed veteran forward Matt Cooke and former Gophers defenseman Keith Ballard.
In addition this season, the Wild largely will rely on the continued growth of youngsters Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and Jonas Brodin, plus a solid base of veterans — Parise, Suter, captain Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Jason Pominville and goaltender Niklas Backstrom.
As Mike Yeo heads into his third season, the Wild coach sat down with the Star Tribune for a Q and A:
Q: Will there be any system tweaks?
A: Our fans will really enjoy this. We’re going to be more aggressive off the rush. … We want to keep the puck. We don’t want to just give it up.
Q: That sounds like you’re saying you’ll be less “dump and chase”?
A: I hate that people think that we’re a dump-and-chase team. It’s completely false. … But there’s going to be a focus for us to try to create more offensively off the rush. So our entries, we have to find ways to attack the zone with more speed, make more plays with support on our entries so we’re carrying the puck inside the blue line with the puck still on our stick. It’ll give us a chance to score more goals, but we’re going to have to be patient early in the year. It’s going to lead to mistakes, and mistakes lead to scoring chances and goals.
Q: What’s your biggest question mark going into camp?
A: Who’s on our team? Who plays with who? Honestly, I’ve got about 1,000 different combinations right now. Every day I go in the office, my board changes about three times. You’re going to see a lot of different guys playing with different people, guys playing in different positions, as well.
Q: Will Coyle and Mikael Granlund go head-to-head for the second-line center spot?
A: I would say, yeah.
Q: What do you expect from Granlund after a disappointing rookie year?
A: He’s flying right under the radar this year, which is perfect. That’s fine. With young kids, with that kind of skill, you have to have some patience. Some of them find it right away, some of them, it takes them a little bit longer. We saw last year that it was an adjustment for him, … but he’s a very talented kid.
Q: How much will you rely on Coyle and Zucker?
A: I want to see improvement. I thought Charlie really established himself as a player. He came in and for a long period of time played a consistent game. Zuck, he has the flashes that draw everybody’s attention and I know he’s a fan favorite, but the bottom line for me, I want to see the consistency in him now. There’s got to be stretches of good game, good game, good game.
Q: Which other kids have shots for jobs?
A: Nino [Niederreiter] is going to get a real good look. [Justin] Fontaine is a guy I’m very interested in seeing. He’s going to have to earn it, but I’m very curious and anxious to see how he does at this level. I want to see how [Zack] Phillips and [Brett] Bulmer’s doing, and we’ve got to make sure Bulmer’s healthy. [Erik] Haula had a great development camp. And Matt [Dumba] will get a great shot.
Q: What do you expect from Heatley?
A: It’s a big year for him [contract year], and I know that he’s really motivated. And I want to put him in a spot where he can be successful because I think he’s going to have a good year. I really do. He’s been working hard this summer and we missed him big time [after he was hurt April 3].
Q: Is it now or never for Marco Scandella?
A: Marco must take a step forward. We need Marco to be able to deliver night in and night out.
Q: How much do you need a bounceback year from Kyle Brodziak?
A: I’ve got full confidence he will bounce back and have a good year for us and develop chemistry with Cooke. Brodzy has a huge role on the team. We talk about No. 2 center, but a lot of times you’re using Brodzy as the No. 2 centerman just based on ice time. I’m counting on him being a hard guy to play against and I have no doubt he will be.
Q: You’re entering the final year of your contract. Have you talked to Chuck about an extension?
A: No. Believe it or not, it doesn’t worry me. You know me; that’s not the way my brain operates. This is where I want to stay. This is where I want to be, this is who I want to coach. But the one thing I’ve promised myself this year, every day I’m just going to coach my butt off. And one thing I will say for sure, there will never be a day where I coach to save my job. I’m coaching to win.
Q: How critical was it to make the playoffs last year?
A: It was such an important step for our group. You could see it in our players, that last stretch of actually clinching it. You could see it in all of us; we knew how important it was. That fear can be almost paralyzing. But we overcame it and now we don’t have that fear. We can’t say that we haven’t made the playoffs in four years. We made the playoffs last year. And now our focus is on something bigger than that.