Tale of two seasons was a first-year test for Yeo

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 7, 2012 - 9:13 AM

In December, he was coach of the team with the NHL's best record. After that, injuries torpedoed the Wild.

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Wild coach Mike Yeo: “I hate losing. … A lot of times when we were losing games, you don’t even want to go in public.”

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Like an earthquake that rocks you from a deep sleep, Mike Yeo never saw it coming.

In mid-December, the Wild was 20-7-3, atop the NHL standings and whichever button he pushed seemed to be the right one.

The Wild was the first team to hit 20 victories and 40 points, the best road team in the NHL, the league's best comeback team and the national media began pumping Yeo's tires as the potential Coach of the Year.

That's why Yeo is "embarrassed" that his first year as the Wild coach will conclude after Saturday's regular-season finale against his mentor, Dave Tippett, and the Phoenix Coyotes.

Yeo, Tippett's blood-and-guts warrior as a player for the Houston Aeros in the late-'90s, says, "I'm very proud of a lot of things that I've done and every day I'm extremely proud to coach this organization and to work for the people that I work for and to coach the group of guys that I coach, but ... I'm embarrassed.

"The bottom line is we didn't make the playoffs. I'm not naive. I know it's hard to make the playoffs. And I know we had injuries and everything. But to me, my job is to get us through that."

All indications from the top of the organization is that Yeo will return for a second season. One giant reason? Those first 30 games when the Wild bought in to exactly what Yeo was selling. It had an incredible work ethic, stuck to Yeo's system almost robotically and waited for the other team to crack night after night.

The Wild suffered injuries, yet others were ushered in and became interchangeable.

But suddenly, the injuries became too much. The Wild lost four top-six forwards at the same time, including captain Mikko Koivu and playmaker Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Others were plucked from the roles they were suited to play, and the Wild's identity vanished for three excruciating months.

A 5-17-6 stretch lasted from Dec. 13 to Feb. 18.

Hard on himself

"To be honest with you, I feel like I let people down," Yeo said. "I hate losing. I love winning and I hate losing probably even more than that. A lot of times when we were losing games, you don't even want to go in public."

On Nov. 12, when the Wild was humiliated by Los Angeles 5-2, Yeo knew exactly what to do to motivate his team, saying having "a team kick the crap out of you" should be a wake-up call. The Wild responded by winning its next five contests and 12 of the next 14.

On Feb. 9, when the Wild was humiliated by Vancouver 5-2, Yeo, in an equally calculated remark, tried to motivate his dying group by saying, "We flat-out stink the last two months." The Wild responded by losing its next four games as part of a winless homestand.

"When things went south, it became much more difficult [to push the right buttons]," Yeo said.

The Wild is 4-0-1 in its past five games and has won six of its past 10. Yeo is confident the adversity he and his players endured will make them all better "at handling these things in the future. I think we're going to be a stronger group."

As Yeo's rookie year comes to an end, the 37-year-old says he's learned a ton, both about his team and the individuals on it. He feels his bench management has improved, understands when matching up is critical and the best ways to avoid them. And he's confident "I've got the room."

"I feel the players have started to really learn that the game starts long before the puck drops," he said.

Player revolt

The biggest test Yeo faced this season came when veteran defenseman Marek Zidlicky, upset he was being scratched for the third of eventually four consecutive games, challenged Yeo publicly by complaining about his ice time and role and created a three-week February distraction.

Zidlicky's agent then went public with Zidlicky's desire to accept a trade to New Jersey (he would eventually be dealt there), which triggered Yeo to scratch him two more games.

"I feel good about the way I handled it," Yeo said. "I stuck to what I believe in and I think it's real important everybody understands the way we do things around here and the team always comes first."

Yeo said his biggest frustration was that Zidlicky spouted off after the Wild won two consecutive games and "finally got traction in our game. I think that angered a lot of people, like, 'Are you doing this for your own reasons here?'"

Yeo has no regrets, other than, "It sounds funny, but I regret we got injured. We're not that far away. We were a first-place team and we lost three players. We have to analyze why it's happened. The reason I regret it is because it leaves you with a feeling of, 'What could have been?' What could have our season been if these injuries didn't happen?"

Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said because of the injuries, "I give the coaches a lot of credit. They weren't dealt a great hand in the second half of the year and they did a very good job preparing the team and keeping us competitive most nights.

"I think it was very tough on Mike -- a rookie head coach in the NHL and just the emotional extremes. We had the highs at the beginning of the season and the lows in the second half where seemingly everything that could go wrong did. I thought he handled it very well.

"He brought a lot of structure to our club both on and off the ice. We play hard defensively, the players compete every night and the players have bought in to what he wants to do on the ice. He's got a very good feel for not just running a bench, but how to run a dressing room."

Anemic offense

The Wild, the lowest-scoring NHL team since the lockout in 2004-05, lost almost 400 man games, including 111 to Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse. The other big loss was Koivu, who missed 27 games. The Wild was on a 94-point pace with Koivu (playoff team); a 57-point without him (non-playoff team).

"I hope everybody understands how important he is to our team," Yeo said of Koivu. "I was speaking with [Detroit coach] Mike Babcock the other day. He said everybody knows that guy drives your bus. He's so valuable and can't just be evaluated with points. It's not only what he gives you, it's what he doesn't cost you. This guy is such a warrior, such a winner."

Instead of the playoffs, Yeo is preparing for exit meetings with players.

"The message that will be conveyed is we're close, but we're not there yet," Yeo said. "I don't think any of us deserve to go on vacation right now. We're not making the playoffs, but believe me, our staff, we're not going on holidays.

"There's no question we need to upgrade some talent. But I'm optimistic. Chuck has a great plan. It takes time, but we're almost there. The culture we have right now, it's one we can win with. This is the time where you want to be playing games and we don't get to play games, so we have to find out why and find out what we can do to make sure we are next year."

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