The Wild's Mike Yeo, after the 113-day NHL lockout, will finally get to coach a team infused with new talent.
Imagine getting a shiny new sports car as a present but being told you can't drive it for five months. The thing is a real beauty, but you can't do anything with it, except dream about how it will feel when you can finally hop in and take it for a spin.
Welcome to Mike Yeo's reality.
The Wild coach watched his owner commit $196 million to land the two biggest free agents on the market -- Zach Parise and Ryan Suter -- in a July 4th fireworks display that made the rest of the NHL take notice. And then ... nothing.
The NHL went dark during a 113-day lockout, and the buzz surrounding the Wild faded away. Yeo tried to pierce the silence with different projects designed to keep himself from going stir crazy.
He made trips to Houston to evaluate minor league prospects. He spent a day with the Vikings coaches and front office to learn about their operation. He visited Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman to pick his brain. He took up boxing, which should come in handy if any on-ice fisticuffs spill over to the bench. He spent time with his family and watched more of his kids' hockey games than ever.
"I was able to do things that a typical hockey dad would do," he said.
But he's back on the clock again. On Saturday, the lockout will officially end, training camp will open and Yeo can stand before his new-look team for the first time and deliver a message he's had plenty of time to craft and rehearse.
"We believe that we're ready to take the next step," he said. "We believe that we're capable of doing great things. Now it's time to get to work."
Yeo begins his second season behind the Wild bench under vastly different circumstances. A year ago, he was a rookie NHL head coach in charge of a non-playoff team in search of direction. Not much pressure in that. Now he's at the controls of a group that's universally regarded as a playoff team thanks to the additions of Parise, Suter and hotshot Finnish rookie Mikael Granlund.
This is the most talented Wild team in the franchise's 13-year existence. Expectations have never been higher. The Parise-Suter signings prompted one sports betting website to move the Wild's odds of winning the Stanley Cup to 22-1, compared to 200-1 before owner Craig Leipold cut a big check. That's pressure.
Yeo understands his team must win at a high level. Leipold is a superfan who lives and dies with each shift. He was willing to fork over nearly $200 million for two players despite the specter of a lockout. No doubt he expects a return on that investment.
"We know as coaches that we have to win," Yeo said. "I think we would all rather have to win with a good team than have to win with not a good team."
Yeo and his coaching staff spent the past few months formulating a plan for how to put a good team together. They came to work every day to watch video and kick around ideas. They talked about system changes and line combinations. They had time to kill so they discussed every scenario ad nauseam.
"It's a good thing dry erase boards were invented," Yeo said, "because we would have killed a lot of trees."
Yeo quickly realized he could turn himself into a mental pretzel if he wasn't careful. Having time to tinker is wonderful until you actually start doing it. There's a fine line between being creative and acting like a mad scientist in a laboratory. And now everything is complicated by the fact that teams only get one week of training camp and no preseason games before the season begins.
Yeo searched for answers why the Wild ranked among the league's best teams and its worst at different times last season. Some reasons were obvious. Injuries ravaged the lineup and forced the team to rely on too many minor leaguers. And Yeo probably used too many different motivational tactics as his team plummeted in the standings and his frustration mounted. He alternated between being angry, supportive, relaxed and uptight. He'll learn from that.
Yeo takes exception, however, to the notion that his team "fell apart" because he believes the Wild made "huge, huge steps" in terms of changing its overall culture.
"We have to be careful because when we had everybody healthy, our game was good," he said. "We were in first place. We proved that our game can be successful when we have NHL players in the lineup."
He has more than just NHL players now. He has NHL stars in Parise, Suter and Mikko Koivu. And good players surrounding them. A lack of talent is no longer an excuse. A shortened training camp and abbreviated season adds a layer of unpredictability, but once the puck drops, that spotlight from this summer returns.
Yeo knows what's at stake, to which he says: Bring it on.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org
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