Yeo under fire as Wild mired in slump

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 2, 2014 - 12:41 AM

Mike Yeo said he’s coaching to get the skidding team back on track, not to save his job.

 

Mike Yeo knows he’s under fire.

He knows what the fans are saying in the Twittersphere. He sees the articles in the daily newspaper. And all along, there has been communication with General Manager Chuck Fletcher, who might soon have to make an excruciating decision about the Wild coach’s future.

Yeo’s job is on dangerous footing with the 10th-place Wild mired in a six-game losing streak and a 5-12-1 slide and facing a steep hike to get back into the playoff race.

“It’s business as usual for me. This has been a question before the season even started, right?” Yeo said, referring to the fact that he’s in the final year of his contract. “I’m actually quite happy with the way I’m dealing with it.”

Before the Wild’s New Year’s Day practice — one that conspicuously included owner Craig Leipold watching from the stands in a seat next to Fletcher — Yeo even talked about his job status with the players:

“I said, ‘I know it’s there, I know what they’re writing, I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me. What I want is for you guys to know I still believe in this group and you’re going to see that I’m still going to come in here and I’m going to coach not to try to save my job, I’m going to coach to try to give us a chance to get things going, get back on track and get back in the playoff race and keep building toward our ultimate goal.’ ”

Thursday is a vital game for Yeo. The Wild’s opponent, the Buffalo Sabres, have one regulation road win this season, are 0-8-2 on the road since Nov. 5 and 0-6-2 on the road under new coach Ted Nolan.

Leipold declined to comment Wednesday. Fletcher said Monday that overreacting was not the right approach but he declined to give Yeo a vote of confidence.

Yeo tried to shake things up Wednesday by recalling winger Jason Zucker for the fourth time since Nov. 20 and by scrambling all four lines.

“We’re throwing a lot of stuff at the wall and we need something to stick,” Yeo said.

Yeo put together an all-veteran first line of Dany Heatley, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville and an all-21-year-old second line of Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund and Zucker.

Charlie Coyle, also 21, moved from top-line right winger to third-line center with Matt Cooke and Justin Fontaine. Center Kyle Brodziak, who hasn’t scored in 30 consecutive games, was downgraded to the fourth line with Stephane Veilleux and Torrey Mitchell.

Yeo acknowledged that Brodziak’s offensive struggles led to the demotion, saying, “The play of the guys is probably going to determine a little more where they fit, and that’s a game-by-game, even a period-by-period thing.”

Heatley has two goals, no assists and 11 shots and is minus-4 during the losing streak, but Yeo said, “He’s moving well, he’s battling hard, he’s involved in creating some scoring chances every game.”

The second line could be considered a bit of a defensive liability. In the past three games, Granlund has committed errors with the puck and Niederreiter errors without it. And Zucker, who has gone 17 consecutive NHL games without a point, has been working to improve his defensive play.

“We’ve got to trust our players,” Yeo said. “It’s tough to be a good NHL hockey team if you’re trying to hide guys out there.”

Constant conversation

Yeo said after Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to St. Louis that he hadn’t addressed the team in the locker room after the past two defeats. He clarified Wednesday that he met with the team three times before Tuesday’s game and does so constantly.

“I’m definitely talking to the players,” he said, laughing. “I think we have meetings to try to figure out when our next meeting is going to be right now, we’ve had so many.”

There has been so much talk about Yeo’s job security or a potential trade that there’s concern players are waiting for a bomb to drop.

“We can’t sit and wait for something to happen,” defenseman Keith Ballard said. “Ultimately, we’re not losing games because of a system. A coach isn’t there to motivate you. If you can’t motivate yourself to play well, you’re not going to last very long in this league.

“So if guys are waiting for [a coaching change] or a trade, we better look at ourselves first. Realistically, trades are hard to make right now. And there’s not going to be some magical trade for a 40-goal scorer. It’s on us in here. It’s on us to find a way to relax and focus on playing a good game.”

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