Jim Souhan: Blind leaps? Pivotal Wild hire shows vision

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 19, 2011 - 11:24 PM

Hiring Mike Yeo as coach was a puzzler at the time, but the Wild's resurgence more than validates it.

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Wild coach Mike Yeo talked to his players in October.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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This shouldn't be happening. The Minnesota Wild shouldn't be the best and most promising major pro sports team in the Twin Cities, shouldn't be leading the Northwest Division when its injury list is filled with more impressive names than its blue line.

After missing the playoffs in the spring of 2011 for the third consecutive season, the Wild fired its inexperienced head coach in favor of another inexperienced head coach, traded its best defenseman and its top goal scorer, and tried to find synonyms for "rebuilding" to appease its dwindling number of paying fans.

Somehow, as of Saturday afternoon, the Wild had taken a five-point lead in the division with an offense that is more clutch than impressive and a group of defensemen who are violating child labor laws.

There are two good reasons to watch sports: To cheer greatness, and to observe teamwork. Thanks to rookie coach Mike Yeo, the Wild is succeeding despite a dearth of the former and because of a copious serving of the latter.

"If you talk to Mike Yeo for any length of time, you'll know that he's not here to win four years from now," Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. "We want to win, and we want to win now. But we do believe our best days are ahead of us."

In this case, objects in the front windshield may be closer than they appear. Fletcher has remade the Wild roster, cutting loose older, less athletic players in favor of youth, speed and toughness. He's dramatically improved the Wild's stock of talented prospects, and his new coach has accelerated the team's progress with a philosophy that allows the Wild to win when it's not at its best.

When Fletcher fired Todd Richards, he was admitting he made a mistake in hiring a coach with whom he was familiar but who lacked NHL head coaching experience. So how did he wind up hiring another coach with whom he was familiar but who lacked NHL head coaching experience?

Yeo's coaching during the Houston Aeros' playoff run last spring trumped all of Fletcher's other interviews.

"I have to be honest, when I first started out, my first thought was that I needed to look at experienced candidates," Fletcher said. "I spent some time around Houston, and the team continued to have success, and I began to realize that even though Mike had relatively little head-coaching experience, he had a lot of coaching experience, and a lot of winning experience.

"He has the technical aspects and the communication skills and the fire and the passion. He took a pretty good Houston team and made them a championship-caliber team."

Fletcher remembers Houston losing Game 6 of the second round of the AHL playoffs in Milwaukee, then preparing for Game 7. Wild owner Craig Leipold and Fletcher were on hand.

"At the morning skate, he was so calm," Fletcher said. "He was workmanlike, but he had enthusiasm, he had energy, he was smiling. You couldn't see any tension. The team went out there and played a great game. They took on his demeanor.

"That showed me a lot, to be a first-year head coach in a do-or-die game on the road after losing a heartbreaker at home, and to handle that like a seasoned vet. Those actions spoke louder than any words someone could say in a formal interview."

Would Yeo have hired Yeo? "Yeah," he said, immediately. "I told Chuck from the start that I was a little annoyed. I didn't want to be evaluated based on what anybody else had done. I'm a different person with different experiences. Evaluate me on what I have done."

Hockey season is about the only thing in Minnesota that lasts longer than winter. There will be plenty of time to judge Yeo as an NHL head coach, but early returns indicate that Fletcher is building an organization that could be good for years, and that he chose the right coach for now, and then.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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