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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Wild GM Chuck Fletcher: We're on the right path; Yeo returning for third season

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Wild coaching, Wild management, Wild off-season news Updated: May 11, 2013 - 4:57 PM
There will be no major front-office or coaching shakeup with the Wild.
 
General Manager Chuck Fletcher said Mike Yeo will return for a third season before the Minnesota bench.
 
“He’s our coach, he’s our coach,” Fletcher said by phone this morning.
 
Good morning from humid South Florida, where I am down here tending to a family matter. I unfortunately had to miss this afternoon’s news conference in St. Paul, but Fletcher was good enough to give me a half-hour on the phone this morning.
 
Rachel Blount and Jim Souhan are at the presser and will talk with Yeo and the players, and Rachel will be on later to fill out this blog with more news.
 
Fletcher told me his job is not to overreact by a playoff series loss to the best team in hockey.
 
He said he’s done a cursory analysis already of the coaching, but he has done all the metrics he normally does at the end of every year. Despite a shortened season and a short training camp, “a couple things stood out to me. We improved in every single area with the exception of PK. PK is one area where we fell back. We’ll take a look at that. 18th in the league. That’s something we want to improve.
 
“Last year in an 82 game season, we outshot our  opponent [24] 24 times. This year in a 48-game season, we outshot our opponent 26. Our shot differential last year was minus-4.9. We gave up 34.1 shots per game, 26th in the league. Basically, the games we won was because of our goaltending.
 
“We gave up a lot of shots, we were in our zone an awful lot. This year cut that down to 27.1, 6th-best in the league. To me that’s huge. This year we had the puck more than our opponent. Our shots on goal went up close to 2, a 6.6-shot swing. That’s the biggest improvement of any team in the league since 07-08.
 
“This year, while we think we have to shoot better and execute better, we had the puck more, we were in our zone less, we defended better, our structure was better. We were also the most disciplined team in the league. We gave up the fewest shorthanded situations.
 
Fletcher said that’s the sign of a well-coached team, and unless there’s something unforeseen, he anticipates all coaches will return with Yeo.
 
He reminded that the Wild went from the worst scoring team in a decade last year to scoring 2.45 goals a game this year. While that’s not a dramatic improvement, that’s almost half a goal a game.
 
“We’re taking steps and we’ve got to keep taking step.”
 
The next couple weeks, there will be lots of meetings, starting with amateur scouting meetings next week. But the next little while will be about evaluating what they did right, what they did wrong, where they have to get better. He wants some of the emotion to die down before he dives into the team.
 
He says execution must improve and that if execution was better against Chicago, the Wild would have made it a different series.
 
“But I look where we were a year ago today to where we are now, there’s just been a dramatic improvement, a dramatic difference,” Fletcher said. “Clearly we’re on the right path. But you play a team like Chicago, you see where you have to get better. Their talent level, their depth is pretty impressive. You see where you need to get to, but at the same token, last year we were Mikko koivu and a bunch of prospects.
 
“Now, we’ve got four cornerstone pieces in Mikko and Suter and Parise and Pominville. We’ve got four high-end players and a lot of those prospects we talked about for a few years are now players. And we have a few more prospects coming, so at least we’re down the path quite a bit. We still have work to do, but we’re trending the right way.
 
“The young guys are all going to mature and get better. Zucker, Brodin and Coyle are all going to get better. We still believe Granlund’s going to be a good player, Scandella had a good playoff, Jared Spurgeon’s been a good player, and we’re not even getting into Haula, Graovac, Bussieres, Phillips, Bulmer and Fontaine. Not all of them are going to play, but some of them will and some may still make an impact on our roster as soon as next year.”
 
Fletcher raved about the job Corey Crawford did in the Blackhawks series. But at some point, you are what you are, and the Wild had trouble finishing all year. It finally hurt them in the playoffs.
 
“There’s no question we need more depth in terms of scoring,” Fletcher said. “From that standpoint, we’re going to have a whole season of Jason Pominville instead of nine regular season and two playoff games. He’s been a really good offensive contributor throughout career and his track record speaks for itself. Dany heatley, nobody talks about, but from the time he got hurt [April 3], our record wasn’t very good. He’s a big body who can play against big teams. He gets to certain areas of the ice and he can be successful. Zucker showed flashes, but I expect him to score more than five goals next year. Some of these young guys are going to have to step up and become contributing players.”
 
Still, the Wild probably need external changes, too. If you read my Insider today on www.startribune.com/wild, I talked a lot about the salary cap going down to $64.3 million. The Wild has about $9 million to play with before even deciding on a No. 1 goalie or re-signing guys like maybe Matt Cullen, Spurgeon, Scandella and Cal Clutterbuck.
 
“It’s going to make it a little bit more difficult to be aggressive pursing players from the outside,” Fletcher said. “You always look to add. Whether we can get into that kind of conversation or whether those pieces are even there, that remains to be seen. It’s a different type of free-agent market [July 5].”
 
On Backstrom and Cullen, Fletcher said, “Like anybody pending unrestricted free agency, they’re going to have a vote in the matter too. We’ll sit down and talk with all of them and see whether they want to be here and what they’re looking to do and see what fits. That’s what the next two months will be about. We’ll obviously have to make some decision, but before, we have to break down our year and see where we need to put the money the most.”
 
On Backstrom, he is having surgery to repair a sports hernia Wednesday. He is 35, struggled down the stretch. But again in that Insider, I wrote how the goalie market is fuzzy. Do you re-sign Backstrom?
 
“Everything’s in play. He’s our No. 1 guy, he played well, he got hurt at the end of the year, but he’s going to be healthy by next year. He can play. He can play a lot. We’ll have to look at everything. What are his thoughts? What are our options? That’s why we told him a few months ago, ‘let’s get to the end of the year and see how the season goes and we’ll be in a better position to talk candidly. So we have a few things we have to resolve this summer.
 
“Every summer has different challenges. Last summer was, ‘Can we get any high-end talent to come here, can we go from the lowest scoring team in a decade to a team that competes?’ We improved half a goal a game, we made the playoffs, we’re in a better spot than we were. We certainly recognize we have a ways to go. But compared to where we were last year, the decisions we’ll have to make this summer aren’t quite as dramatic. There are ways to get things done so we can come back with a good hockey team.”
 
By the way, Fletcher still talks about Heatley like he doesn’t plan to buy him out. I asked if he is an automatic buyout: “That’s not the case at all. We’ll make all those decisions this summer. But no decision has been made at all. He’s a pretty good player for us. We’ll figure everything out.”
 
Incidentally, Granlund took Finland’s last roster spot in the current world championships. They were holding it for Koivu, but Granlund’s going.
 
That’s it for me. I need to write for the paper and then get back to some things. Rachel will be on later to touch up the blog.

UPDATE: In today's session with the media, Fletcher said much the same. Yeo was alongside him and added this:

When asked about his growth as a coach, Yeo said he believes he and his staff did some things that made the Wild a tougher team to play against this year--and he expects that improvement to continue next season, from coaches and players alike. He keeps notes throughout the season and will go through those in the coming weeks to identify issues and potential solutions.

"There were areas where we helped give our players a better chance,'' he said. "We have to do the same next year, We can't just hope all of a sudden we sign 12 goal scorers. We have to do more on our side when we talk about shooting percentage. Is there something we can do different or better? We'll look at that.''

Yeo addressed the speculation that Backstrom's injury may have been caused by overuse. He and Fletcher noted that seven goalies played more than Backstrom and did not get hurt. "It's what we were forced to do,'' he said of starting Backstrom in 27 of the last 28 regular-season games. "If you're going into a really important game, it's really important that the players look at the most important position and say, 'OK, we're good tonight.' Backy has that respect from teammates. We were playing crucial games, and he is an important veteran presence. I would do that again.''

Yeo said he is confident that Backstrom can play 55-60 games next season. Backstrom said he expects to get back to his regular routine three weeks after the surgery. Team officials noted one other offseason surgery: Mike Rupp, who will have a torn meniscus repaired in his knee.

Yeo also talked about the "culture change'' that has been such a buzz phrase for the Wild this season. "From the players, there's a different mentality around the feeling after you lose a game,'' he said. "That's a real important quality a winning team has to have. The level of professionalism that the athletes come to the rink with every day, that starts in the summer with how they train and prepare for the season ahead, we've seen huge improvement in that area. The work and commitment put in through a long and grinding season, we've seen large improvements in that area, too. We've got a great deal of character, a great deal of leadership on this team. I really believe we're taking the right steps toward having that winning attitude, that winning culture you need.''

Players who were at the rink Saturday were Koivu, Parise, Cullen, Backstrom, Harding, Bouchard and Coyle. Their comments included:
--Backstrom said he wants to return to Minnesota and is confident he can handle a heavy workload next year if need be. He also said he will not be motivated mainly by money as he considers where to play next season. "I've been fortunate to be here for seven years,'' he said. "It's a home for me. I love the team. I love the cities and the state. It's a great place to be ... It's business, but at the end of the day it's about where you feel good and comfortable and where you can get the most out of yourself.''
--Cullen said he feels good physically, but the uncertainty over his future--and the relatively quick end to the playoffs--seemed to be taking an emotional toll. He said this when asked about it: "It's hard to say. It's still so fresh; there's a lot to think about. I'm going to need some time to sit down and think, to spend some time with family and take a step back. You never want to make a decision when you're disappointed or emotional. Those emotions are still pretty raw from losing a couple of nights ago. I'll take some time to think things over.''
--Bouchard said it was "a big step'' to play a season in good health and that he feels great. He, too, was melancholy about the prospect of signing elsewhere in the offseason. "I've been here a lot of years,'' he said. "It's been fun. It is kind of weird; it's my first time in this situation, not knowing if I'll be back next year. So it is a little bit emotional. I would like to be back.''
--Harding said he injured his left leg when Jonathan Toews collided with him in Game 4. It wasn't serious, he said, but it compromised his quickness. Other than that, Harding said, he felt great during the playoffs, giving him confidence that he will be ready to play a significant number of games next season as he continues to live with multiple sclerosis.
He will stay in Minnesota this summer to work out with the Wild's strength coaches, hoping to regain the weight he lost this season while his treatment was being refined.
"This summer will be huge for me with getting some weight back on, getting a little stronger and getting everything dialed in,'' he said. "I'm definitely up for the challenge.''
 

 

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