Wild to name Mike Yeo coach

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 16, 2011 - 6:04 PM

Yeo, who at 37 is even younger than his predecessor Todd Richards, will become the third coach in Wild history.

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Mike Yeo behind the Houston bench earlier this year at Xcel Energy Center

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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For the second time in two years, Chuck Fletcher is willing to stick his neck out on the rising star instead of the recycled vet.

The Wild general manager hopes the second time goes better than the first.

Mike Yeo, who at 37 is even younger than his predecessor Todd Richards was when he became Wild coach, has been promoted back to the NHL. The Wild will make Yeo's hiring official at an 11 a.m. news conference Friday in St. Paul.

Mere days after completing his rookie American Hockey League season by guiding the Houston Aeros to the Calder Cup Finals, the young but confident Yeo will become the third coach in Wild history.

"It's awesome," said Yeo Thursday before flying to Minnesota from Houston.

Like Richards, who beat out veterans like Dave Tippett and Peter Laviolette in June 2009, Yeo has been hired over veterans Craig MacTavish and Ken Hitchcock two years later.

But Yeo has accomplished a lot in his young career. Before arriving back in Houston, where he played for five years and once captained to a Turner Cup championship, Yeo spent five years as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

He was an assistant alongside another candidate he beat out for the Minnesota job, Michel Therrien, in 2008 when the Penguins went to the Stanley Cup Finals. A year later, after Therrien was fired, Yeo was retained by new coach Dan Bylsma.

Together, they won a Stanley Cup. Fletcher was assistant GM of the Penguins while Yeo was there.

"When I look back, I can say Mike was so ready to be a head coach," Bylsma told the Star Tribune in May. "His work ethic is diligent. The guy is relentless in trying to come up with the right answers and trying to come up with the plan and message to the team.

"He was a big part of our backbone. He did a lot of the nuts and bolts and a lot of the work in putting together the presentation of the system to the team."

In Houston, Yeo, along with assistants Darryl Sydor and Brian Wiseman, coached the Wild's chief developmental affiliate to the second-best record (46-28-6) in the Western Conference despite a revolving door of players shuttling back and forth to Minnesota.

The Aeros played a structured, physical, forechecking, defensively responsible style and had immense success despite a lack of offensive firepower.

"I coached him all five years," Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, a former Aeros' player, coach and GM, told the Star Tribune in May. "Mike was a hard-nosed checker, good penalty killer and sneaky tough. He didn't look for it all the time, but if you came knocking on the door, you were going to get a surprise.

"He was so well-respected by his teammates because of how hard he worked. It was always about the team winning. He had a way to portray that, which made him a real leader. He was always methodical in his approach, always very prepared as a player, always integrated well with people. You can see why he's a great, respected coach."

Unable to play anymore, Yeo became Glenn Patrick's assistant in Wilkes-Barre in 1999. In came Therrien in 2003, and the two were promoted to Pittsburgh in 2005 when Ed Olczyk was fired. Yeo was only 32.

"It was [Therrien] and I. That was it. No other assistant coach, which is unheard of now," Yeo said, before adding with a laugh, "I got to coach Mario [Lemieux] for one game. I think he saw what he was getting involved with and said, 'I want nothing to do with this.'"

That was Sidney Crosby's rookie year, and Yeo and Crosby grew close, GM Ray Shero said, because of an immense mutual respect.

"Getting a chance to work with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and many of their other young stars, it keeps you sharp every day," Yeo said. "If you want to have credibility with these guys, you better be on the ball and you better know your stuff."

But Yeo, conscious he was a very young NHL coach, was always trying to prove himself.

"My first six, seven years of coaching, I went to every coach's clinic I possibly could," Yeo said. "I still am to this day a student of the game. If I was a great player, I'd have that instant credibility. I'd walk in a room, and people would be like, 'Oh there it is.' But then it'd just be mine to lose.

"I didn't have it when I walked in the room in Pittsburgh the first time, but I've always felt very confident in my knowledge of the game, the things I was saying and the way I was presenting it. You can tell very quickly if you're respected, and I felt very comfortable they took to me."

Hiring Yeo might be a tough sell for Fletcher after originally going with the inexperienced Richards. However, Yeo's got much more experience (12 years coaching, five in the NHL) than Richards did (one year as an NHL assistant).

"I came here to become a [NHL] head coach," Yeo said in May. "If it happens next year, that'll be great. If it happens in a couple years down the road, that'd be great, too."

Bylsma believes Yeo is ready now.

"You're talking to a guy who had less experience as a head coach in the American League than Mike Yeo has now," said Bylsma, who coached 54 games in Wilkes-Barre before he replaced Therrien in 2009. "So do I think he has enough experience? No question at all.

"Is that the right fit for Minnesota right now? That's a different question. But I'm not sure I want to coach against Mike Yeo if he's in the National Hockey League."

Bylsma will now have to.

Yeo's task will be to take a middle-of-the-road franchise with an increasingly frustrated fan base and steer it back on track. The Wild's missed the postseason for three straight seasons (two under the Fletcher regime) and five of the past seven.

One question regarding Yeo's hiring is how it affects the Wild's coaching staff. The Wild currently has vacancies for one assistant coach and one video coach, but the contracts for assistant coach Darby Hendrickson, goalie coach Bob Mason and strength coach Chris Pietrzak-Wegner all expire June 30.

Assistant coach Rick Wilson, in charge of the defensemen, has one year left on his deal and it would be surprising if Fletcher doesn't ensure he's kept on. The other question is who takes over Houston. Assistant coach Darryl Sydor or John Torchetti could be candidates.

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