Time for Wild to tank? No thanks, Yeo says

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 3, 2012 - 11:14 AM

The Wild's sudden hot streak isn't helping its draft position, but the coach is adamant that learning how to win is more important.

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Wild coach Mike Yeo watched his team battle the Blackhawks in Chicago.

Photo: Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press

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NASHVILLE - Leave it to the Wild to suddenly learn how to win when all playoff hope is gone -- and the extra victories hamper the team's draft position.

Watching the Wild win now has been, for some, as frustrating as the three months of agony inflicted when an extraordinary amount of losses mounted.

At least those anguished fans figured the consolation prize for such pain would be a top-five pick and a chance at the No. 1 overall choice in June's draft.

But the Wild, with three consecutive victories and five in its past eight, is blowing that chance.

The bottom five teams have a chance at the No. 1 pick. The Wild is seventh worst and could end up 10th worst.

"I know it's hard for people to realize, but what our guys are doing right now is far more important than two, three spots in the draft," said Mike Yeo, the coach responsible for trying to win games ... not lose them.

"We want to be winners. And winning is a habit. One thing we've become better at -- and part of it is because we've dealt with it a lot -- is dealing with adversity. And that's a huge part of winning.

"This is a very strong form of adversity that we're dealing with right now. The fact that you're out of it and you don't have anything to play for, or at least people think you don't have anything to play for. But you have to find a way to match the other team's desperation level, you have to find a way to be motivated and focused."

Stuck in the middle

The first-year coach says his job is to create a winning culture, not help the scouts by intentionally putting the Wild in poor positions to win and thus better the team's draft position.

But understandably cynical Wild fans, who know the team's history inside and out, are tired of the Wild annually being just good enough to get a mid-range draft pick.

The Wild had two top-five picks in history and never by its own doing. The first was before its inaugural season when it was able to draft third overall and take Marian Gaborik in 2000. The second came in 2005. Due to a special lockout lottery formula, the Wild lucked into the fourth pick and drafted Benoit Pouliot.

The previous regime's final five first-round picks? A.J. Thelen 12th overall in 2004, Pouliot in 2005, James Sheppard (ninth overall in 2006), Colton Gillies (16th overall in 2007) and Tyler Cuma (23rd overall in 2008).

The past two drafts under the new regime look like home runs. Still, the Wild drafted arguably three top-six forwards in history (Gaborik, Mikko Koivu in 2001 and Pierre-Marc Bouchard in 2002) and one elite defenseman (Brent Burns in 2003, although 2008 second-rounder Marco Scandella holds promise).

But Yeo says, "The teams that are successful year after year after year, they don't pick in the top three all the time. They have gotten great players, but at the same time, they've got a winning culture. That has got to be our focus right now.

"Where we finish at the end of the year, I trust our scouts, I trust [assistant General Manager] Brent Flahr, I trust [GM] Chuck Fletcher. They've been doing a phenomenal job drafting since they've been in Minnesota. We're going to get a great player regardless of where we finish."

No sure things

It certainly looks as if Flahr has taken top-notch prospects in his two years running the draft table, and that was with a 10th pick in 2011 (Jonas Brodin) and a ninth pick in 2010 (Mikael Granlund).

"Sometimes there's very little drop between 1 and even 10," Yeo said.

And, sometimes the top picks aren't shoo-ins to be studs. Take 2005. The Wild drafted Pouliot. Carey Price went fifth, Devin Setoguchi eighth, Anze Kopitar 11th and Marc Staal 12th. Heck, James Neal went 33rd.

"If we don't have the right culture here, it doesn't matter who you bring in," Yeo said. "If we don't have the right attitude, it doesn't matter who we draft."

Because the Wild is lowering its draft position doesn't necessarily mean it can't win the lottery. Last year, New Jersey finished with the eighth-worst record, won the lottery and drafted standout defenseman Adam Larsson fourth overall.

Yeo said he does "kind of get, I guess," why fans are frustrated.

But, Yeo says, "This is the kind of culture that you want to cheer for. Guys that go out and keep fighting. That's the kind of people that you can win with. One very, very important thing for people to understand, I think this makes it a much more attractive place for free agents.

"When you know, 'OK, this is a team that was winning, they lost some players, now they get their best player [Koivu] back and they've started to win,' free agents will know that we're close, they'll know this group has character, that this was a group that kept fighting, and it's the kind of culture you can win with.

"So I can understand part of it. But it can also lure free agents. It's not all about the draft."

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