Yeo a bold pick to take over Wild

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2011 - 12:03 PM

Mike Yeo, who just completed his first season as a head coach in the minors, will be introduced as the NHL's youngest coach today.

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Pittsburgh assistant coach Mike Yeo raises the Stanley Cup after the Penguins beat the Detroit Red Wings 2-1 to win Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in 2009.

Photo: Paul Sancya, Associated Press

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For the second time in two years, Chuck Fletcher is selecting 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 hired as Wild coach, will become the youngest coach in the NHL when he is introduced at a news conference at 11 a.m Friday.

The bold hire for a team that has missed the playoffs for three consecutive years comes after Yeo completed his rookie American Hockey League season by guiding the Houston Aeros to the Calder Cup finals.

"It's awesome," the supremely confident Yeo said before boarding a flight from Houston to Minnesota on Thursday.

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

Yeo's hiring came on the same day MacTavish, who never was offered the Wild job, interviewed with the new Winnipeg franchise. Yeo impressed GM Fletcher during his lone interview last Friday, but he and Fletcher know each other from their days in Pittsburgh and the two spent many days together during Houston's playoff run.

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.

"He's a very loyal, passionate, hard-working guy. He's a smart guy," Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero said of Yeo (pronounced "Yo"). "This just seems his time. When you're around him, you understand why. He's a young guy, but he's seen a lot of things and experienced a lot of things in the National Hockey League already.

"That's why I don't perceive Mike Yeo as a minor league coach coming up to coach in the NHL. He's an NHL coach that stopped in the AHL to get head-coach experience."

A former minor league grinder who captained the Aeros to a Turner Cup title in 1999, Yeo spent five years as an assistant with the Penguins. In 2008, Yeo went to the Stanley Cup Finals alongside Michel Therrien, another coach he beat out for the Wild job. A year later, after Therrien was fired, Yeo helped win the Stanley Cup as Dan Bylsma's assistant. 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 said last month. "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."

Yeo is known to work tirelessly, and in January 2010 had to leave the Penguins for two weeks after experiencing chest pains and light-headedness on the bench. He was diagnosed with high blood pressure and now takes medicine and says, "I'm fine."

After the 2009-10 season, Yeo realized to reach his ultimate goal of NHL head coach, he would have to leave the comfy confines of Pittsburgh and become a head coach in the minors. He guided the Aeros 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 sound style and had immense success despite a lack of offensive firepower.

"He really, really knows how to coach his players," said 2007 first-round draft pick Colton Gillies. "It's all about the process with him, the little things that require you to win games. He prepares you so, so well. I'm just really happy for him. I think he deserves it. He's done wonders for my career already."

Yeo's departure in Houston opens a head coaching position there. As of now, the Wild has one vacant assistant position and one video coaching position. Veteran assistant Rick Wilson has one year left on his deal, and with his vast experience, technical expertise and solid work with the Wild last season, it would be surprising if he is not retained.

The contracts for assistant coach Darby Hendrickson, goalie coach Bob Mason and strength coach Chris Pietrzak-Wegner all expire June 30.

Yeo's coaching career began in the AHL at age 25 in 1999 when he became Glenn Patrick's assistant in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. In came Therrien in 2003, and the two were promoted to Pittsburgh in 2005 when Ed Olczyk was fired. Yeo was only 32.

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

Shero believes coaching such gifted players, plus coaching players even older than him, will mean Yeo won't be intimidated walking into a Wild dressing room and dealing with such personalities as Mikko Koivu and Matin Havlat.

"He's coached the best players in the world. It was Mike Yeo who worked one-on-one with Sidney Crosby," Shero said. "He had the respect of the Sergei Gonchars, Billy Guerins and Gary Roberts. I mean, if you can deal with Gary Roberts and Georges Laraque, you can deal with anybody."

Hiring Yeo might be a tough sell for Fletcher after originally going with the young Richards. But Yeo already has coached for 11 years -- five in the NHL.

"You're talking to a guy who had less experience as a head coach in the American League than Mike Yeo has now," Bylsma, who coached 54 games in Wilkes-Barre before he replaced Therrien in 2009, said last month. "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.

• The Wild traded defenseman Maxim Noreau to New Jersey for center David McIntyre in a swap of minor leaguers.

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