Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.
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The Wild has brought Darryl Sydor along for the ride from Houston.
Mike Yeo's assistant last year with the Aeros was hired Thursday to replace Dave Barr, who was dismissed with Todd Richards in April.
Assistant coach Darby Hendrickson was also retained, as well as Rick Wilson, who used to coach Sydor in Dallas, and goalie coach Bob Mason.
GM Chuck Fletcher announced earlier this month that Wilson and Mason would be back.
The Wild has not yet hired a video coach, and it is still to be determined whether strength coach Chris Pietrzak-Wegner is retained. His contract ends today, but I believe he's been extended to work the development camp July 11-17.
After the 2009-10 season, Sydor, 39, retired after 18 seasons in the NHL playing for Los Angeles, Dallas, Columbus, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. The longtime, well-respected defenseman won Stanley Cups with the Stars and the Lightning. He was actually coached by Yeo in Pittsburgh, and Aeros players, especially their defensemen, raved about him last season during Houston's run to the Calder Cup Finals.
Wilson and Sydor were both defensemen, so we'll see how the bench works. But Fletcher said that wouldn't be a big issue a few weeks ago when asked if he and Yeo would be looking for a former forward as an assistant. In fact, several teams have two defensemen on their bench as assistants, and I'm fairly sure, former forward Mario Tremblay used to change the Wild's defense -- not former defenseman Mike Ramsey.
Former Wild coach Todd Richards wasn't on the unemployment line long. The Crystal, Minn., native will join the Columbus Blue Jackets as Scott Arniel's assistant.
Richards had other opportunities, but this one was firm, offered and here for the taking. The others he'd have to wait for.
Richards and Arniel know each other from their AHL coaching days and developed a relationship when they'd share scouting reports. When Arniel coached Manitoba, he'd give West reports to Richards. Richards, who coached Wilkes-Barre, would give East reports to Arniel.
Richards was attractive to Columbus because he's known as a good power-play guy. Richards is very excited to work with Rick Nash and a lot of Columbus' young up-and-comers.
Also, the Wild's Nate Prosser accepted his one-year, $715,000 qualifying offer. It's a two-way deal. Prosser had a strong season, especially in the second half, for Mike Yeo and the Houston Aeros.
Give or take, here's about 2,100 words worth of what Wild GM Chuck Fletcher and new head coach Mike Yeo had to say this morning, transcribed by yours truly, Brian Stensaas (you all remember me, right???).
Please do enjoy:
I've got to admit, Chuck Fletcher's got more guts than me.
If it were me, after passing over Dave Tippett and Peter Laviolette the first time around for the less been-there, done-that Todd Richards, I don't know if I would have had the guts to go young again with Ken Hitchcock and Craig MacTavish dangling out there.
And that's no slight against Mike Yeo(you can read updated article here).
After spending more time this season paying attention to the minor-league team than I've ever done in my career, I think the 37-year-old Yeo is a very capable and very impressive coach. I just have to believe that not only will Fletcher have to sell the fans this was the right choice at Friday's news conference, he also had to hard-sell the owner today that this was the right choice.
So that alone puts an awful lot of pressure on Fletcher, who's got two more years left on his contract.
He stuck his foot out over the ledge. Will he be able to keep his balance? Time will tell.
I never did get the impression that Fletcher was all that enamored with the veteran choices out there, which should have been an indication all along that Yeo would be the guy. But again, this is a business, he swung and missed the first time around with a certain type of coach and I didn't think he'd have the guts to go that route again.
But as I wrote this morning, it's very unfair to just lump Yeo in as Richards' clone simply because a certain perception of a coach didn't work out the first time -- the young, inexperienced perception.
They're very different personalities with very different experiences.
But the reality is unless he can turn the Wild into a winner, he's running uphill already. The comparisons to Richards will be hard to escape -- both from Pittsburgh's organization, both coaching in Wilkes-Barre, both with little to no NHL playing experience, both with little head-coach experience.
But Richards came to the Wild with one year of assistant coaching experience in the NHL. Yeo comes with five, and he went to one Stanley Cup Final and won another as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Now, let's be honest here: That was the Pittsburgh Penguins. Just a tad more talented than the Minnesota Wild with just a tad more firepower.
Just a tad.
But Yeo is very respected in the coaching ranks, and if the Wild didn't hire him now, you can bet he would have been gone in a year's time.
Where I think Yeo sold himself to Fletcher was the fact that he could somehow take that Houston team, which lets be honest, was not exactly bustling with offensive firepower and guide it all the way to the Calder Cup Finals. As Rick Dudley said to me at the draft combine, "I don't know Mike Yeo, but I know what he's doing, and he's doing it well because I've watched his team play."
Yeo and his staff, which included longtime NHL veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor, put together a suffocating system that included an aggressive forecheck, details to the "little things" and a focus to strong defense. But the game was played in the offensive zone all playoff. There were times I watched them where they came in waves and often severely outshot their opponents, holding their opponents to 26 shots a game -- second-best in the playoffs (first-best played six games, so really, Houston was the best defensive team in the playoffs).
If Houston just had a little more offensive talent, it probably would have been hoisting the Cup instead of watching it paraded on its home ice.
That fact the Aeros could overachieve with such little offensive firepower, I think, impressed the Wild greatly because the reality is Yeo will have to put forth a structured system to get a Wild team with not a lot of offensive firepower back on track.
I think that's where he won out over MacTavish. MacT is a good coach, but I do think when you analyze his Edmonton teams, there were some alarm bells. He made the playoffs in three of eight years.
Just squeezing a chart we put together in case of his hiring into a paragraph, the Oilers' power play was bottom-half of the league in seven of eight years (14th the lone time in the top half), bottom-third five times. The penalty kill, which should be MacT's forte, cracked the top-10 three times but ranked 27th twice. In terms of goals for, the Oilers ranked ninth three times but finished as low as last. In terms of goals against, the Oilers ranked second in 2001-02 but didn’t crack the top-12 the other seven years.
Yeo had only one interview with Fletcher -- last Friday, but of course, they know each other from Pittsburgh and spent a great deal of time together all Houston postseason.
As you'll surely learn three minutes into his news conference tomorrow, Yeo is a very convincing guy. He's very confident in his abilities, and I think he sold Fletcher that he was the right guy to stick his neck out for.
Yeo has been taught by some of the sport's great coaches. Like many of today's coaches, he played for Dave Tippett (it's no accident why so many of this great coach's players now coach). He worked with Michel Therrien, who may have a gruff, callous reputation, but the guy can coach, especially defensively. He worked with Dan Bylsma, a great coach in his own right who's got a completely different personality than Therrien and coaches a completely different style.
So Yeo learned, and he also proved his loyalty. Not many coaches could mesh so seemlessly and transition to a new coach the way Yeo did between Therrien and Bylsma. And trust me, I've talked to Yeo about this. He felt incredibly guilty that Therrien was fired and that he was kept on. (Speaking of which, I think Rick Wilson at least stays on because of his vast experience, his great work he did with the defensemen last year and because this is a man who has proven in Dallas that he can also go from one regime to another, Hitchcock to Tippett).
So Yeo's loyal, he's smart, he's technically sound and he's confident. And he's just got this impressive demeanor about him, this swagger or as Ray Shero told me, "the way he carries himself."
I witnessed it when I went over to Milwaukee in May to watch the Aeros play the Admirals. The Aeros lost Game 6. But I watched the way Yeo, with poise and no nervousness, addressed the players after the loss. I then watched as he addressed the media after, with poise, no nervousness, with confidence that they were going to correct their mistakes and rebound. I was blown away.
You take on the persona of your coach. It's why after Game 6 in Boston, I wrote on Twitter that I'd be petrified if I were Canucks fans after watching Alain Vigneault's presser after that blowout loss. That was one rattled coach, and last night, that was one nervous-looking, rattled Canucks team.
Now this isn't to say Yeo will be some lovey, dovey pushover in the locker room. Ask anybody in Houston, and he holds players accountable, and makes them put in the work. He's coached the best players in the world. He's coached veterans like Bill Guerin and Gary Roberts.
He's not going to be intimidated walking into a locker room with Marty Havlat and Mikko Koivu and the like. He's not going to be worried if the Wild signs players who are older than him.
And that's what the Wild brass wants here -- a strong communicator but more of a taskmaster.
There's a unique culture in this Wild locker room, and the brass wants the coach to hold players accountable, to get on players who think they don't have to put in the effort, to get on players who are not being true to their fitness.
Yeo has a huge job facing him -- the hardest of his life.
This is not an easy team to coach from a personality point of view and a talent point of view. It's going to be a year before the Mikael Granlunds and Johan Larssons are ready to come over, for the Brett Bulmers and Jason Zuckers to maybe turn pro. Next year's players ready to perhaps make the jump are the Wild's second-tier youngsters, but at least ones Yeo is familiar with and who are familiar with him, guys like Colton Gillies and Casey Wellman and Marco Scandella.
This is not a year any team should throw around cash in the free-agent market, and the Wild MUST get out of the habit of signing multi-million dollar third-line and fourth-line players. That's why you've got to infuse some of these young kids.
And unless Fletcher can make some impact trades this summer (maybe in the next week as we head into the Draft), there could be growing pains for Yeo in Year One.
That's why this was such a risk. At least if there were growing pains in Year One under Hitch or MacT, the Yeo hire couldn't be used as one source of blame.
Bold decision by Fletcher. I'm actually impressed by it. But Fletcher better hope he's right, or he may not get a third crack at hiring a coach.
The Wild has called a news conference for 11 a.m. Friday morning to announce Houston Aeros coach Mike Yeo as the third head coach in Wild history.
Yeo is pronounced "Yo," and comes from the word, "Yeoman."
More to come
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