Wild slump puts additional pressure on GM, coach

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2013 - 1:03 AM

Loss to Islanders still stings, but GM Fletcher said, “It’s over.”

As Kyle Okposo of the Islanders celebrated his second goal in less than two minutes late in the third period Sunday night, Chuck Fletcher studied the replay intently.

The Wild general manager was flabbergasted that his team, which prides itself on defensive structure, could give up a go-ahead goal 27 seconds after tying a game in which it already had blown a three-goal lead.

The Wild would go on to its fifth consecutive loss, becoming the first opponent to allow the Islanders to rally to victory from three goals down in almost 20 years. The Islanders lost 380 consecutive games when trailing by at least three, an NHL record.

Yet Monday morning, it was business as usual at Wild practice. The Wild didn’t follow the Vikings’ lead and fire coach Mike Yeo. Fletcher didn’t trade any players, although he admitted he’s “constantly on the phone trying to make something happen.”

“No one likes to lose five games in a row, no one likes to lose the way we did [Sunday] night. Unfortunately these things happen,” Fletcher said. “The key is … you can’t bring that baggage into [Tuesday’s] St. Louis game. As painful as it is, it’s over.”

Yeo is in the last year of his contract. The Wild is 5-11-1 since losing in St. Louis on Nov. 25.

The Wild made the playoffs for the first time in five years last season, and owner Craig Leipold’s expectations are for his high-payroll team to build upon that. So Yeo is under enormous pressure to reverse this free-fall immediately. Three games remain on this homestand.

On Monday, Fletcher declined to answer when asked if Yeo’s job was safe. He knows how much scrutiny his coach is under.

“That’s always the reaction in sports,” Fletcher said. “I go back to, ‘Do you define your team based on five games or based on 36?’ If every time you have a five-game winning streak or a five-game losing streak you start to overreact either way, you’re going to be in trouble in this business.

“You’re going to have stretches where you lose games in every season, and we’re in one right now. We’ve got to get out of it. We have the personnel here — both coaches and players — that can get us out of it. If I can help out in any way, I’m going to try. Right now I think overreacting is not the right approach. We’ve got to show faith in this group.”

Yeo felt terrible for ousted Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, whom he has spent time shadowing in the past. “I do know he is a great human being,” Yeo said.

Return to form?

Asked about the disapproving eyes from critics focused on him, Yeo said: “Same as our team, same as everything else, I want our guys to look at me and say that’s how we’re going to deal with this. It’s adversity. That’s fine. But come to the rink the next day and you work a little harder.”

As for potential trades to shake things up, Fletcher says he has the cap space “where we could probably do something.”

“We think we have a pretty good plan in place where we want to be the next few years,” Fletcher said. “You have to have some patience, but if there’s an opportunity to get better, we certainly will as long as we’re not blowing up the blueprint we worked pretty hard to create over the last few years.”

Fletcher noted that “until five games ago, we were on pace for over 100 points and one of the top defensive teams in the league. … Right now, for whatever reason, we’ve gotten away from that. Right from the first shot on goal in the Pittsburgh game [Dec. 19], we seemed to have lost our confidence defensively, we seemed to have lost our ability to defend and play within the structure that we need to play.

“The challenge for the coaches and the players and for all of us is, ‘How do we get back to being who we are?’ We have to play with a certain identity. The last two games, we scored eight goals and we haven’t gotten a win. So to me, we just have to get back to who we are.”

Confidence shaken

The lasting effect of Sunday’s loss was evident in Monday’s practice. Yeo said it was “understandably not joyous and chipper.”

He said the shame of that defeat was that there were a lot of positive things to grab onto for a team lacking confidence, such as the four goals and 25 scoring chances the Wild generated. But “some new problems have crept in,” he said.

The Wild has allowed 24 goals during the five-game losing streak, and much of Monday’s practice surrounded defensive-zone coverage.

“All good teams go through these things, but they react the right way and they get better because of it,” Yeo said.

The Wild’s confidence has been so shattered, it’s almost waiting for bad things to happen.

“The further a losing streak goes, the harder it gets because the power of your mind is stronger than anything else in this game,” veteran Matt Cooke said. “Unless you’ve been taught to strengthen your mind in bad situations, then it festers.

“You have to guard against sitting on the fence waiting for someone to push you backward as opposed to leaning forward and making sure you don’t fall. We, as a group, need to be mentally tough. There’s no other option but to go out and have our best game of the year [Tuesday] night against St. Louis.”

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