Souhan: Can Wild ride recent success to playoffs?

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 9, 2014 - 12:49 AM

Mike Yeo has struggled with prosperity previously.

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Wild head coach Mike Yeo and his players looked for answers against the Blues, an eventual 2-1 loss, earlier this season.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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It’s easy to be dissatisfied with the Wild. The Generic Varmints haven’t won a playoff series since 2003. They haven’t drafted and developed a star or pure scorer other than Marian Gaborik.

Their style of play, like that of many NHL teams, can be stultifying. They never seem to play their best when they are healthy, and they are rarely healthy. Their best young players are unreliable, and they are relying on goaltenders who are ill, old or inexperienced.

Given their flaws and challenges, it’s instructive to look at the progress they’ve made over their past three seasons.

In 2011-12, Mike Yeo, in his first year as coach, buggy-whipped a mediocre roster to 81 points. This achievement was not appreciated because the team lapsed in the second half and failed to make the playoffs. Given that team’s talent level, 81 points, or .99 points per game, was a more-than-reasonable return.

In 2012-13, the Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, then earned 55 points in a shortened season, averaging 1.15 points per game. The team earned a playoff spot and offered occasional resistance to the Chicago Blackhawks, the eventual Stanley Cup winner.

In 2013-2014, the Wild has often disappointed for stretches, and has often been at its worst when healthiest. In total, though, the Wild is on pace for 96 points, which would mean earning 1.17 points per game. Barring a collapse, the Wild would make the playoffs for a second consecutive season.

For those who dreamed that Parise and Suter would turn the Wild into contenders for home ice in the first round of the playoffs and contenders for a Cup, the past two seasons have been disappointing. Given the broader view of how poor the Wild’s roster was before they arrived, and how reliant the current roster is on youngsters and unreliable goaltenders, this can be said:

Parise and Suter have done their jobs well. They have made the Wild relevant again.

Yeo, too, has done his job well over the past month. With Mikko Koivu and sometimes Parise hurt, and often without his top two goaltenders, Yeo has helped the Wild go 11-4-2 over its past 17 games before the Olympic break.

Yeo often has dragged impressive performances out of minor league call-ups and role players.

For the Wild to improve from relevant to dangerous, Yeo will have to prove he can coach just as well when managing a full, not-untalented roster.

Yeo earned the Wild job by succeeding in the minor leagues. He has a natural affinity for unheralded grinders and talented youngsters.

Barring an injury during Olympic play, Yeo should have a full complement of talented skaters when the NHL season resumes. Parise has played brilliantly since returning from his foot injury. Suter remains a tireless and savvy defender. Koivu should return at full strength after the Olympics.

Despite his agreeable personality, Yeo has proved to be something of a contrarian coach. He tends to overachieve when given a mediocre roster, and flail when given healthy, high-end talent. He thrives when rumors of his imminent dismissal surface.

“I guess one thing we do is we try to present the challenge that is out there,’’ Yeo said. “Knowing that competitors, they love a challenge. I think we all do. When there’s a challenge in front of us, it’s fun to go out there and conquer it.’’

Yeo has survived the goalie shuffle. He has survived injuries to Parise, Koivu and Harding, three of the team’s five most important players. He has survived informed speculation about his impending firing when the team slumped.

“Piece of cake,’’ he joked. “Slept like a baby.’’

After the Olympics, the Wild will face its toughest stretch of schedule, and Yeo will face the defining challenge of his head coaching tenure.

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