Yeo made line switches and in-game adjustments. He has prodded certain players (note Charlie Coyle’s impressive response since Yeo publicly urged him for more) or put himself under the gun by telling everybody last month that the Wild was not choking its season away.
“There are a lot of things I did this year that I certainly wouldn’t have done in the past,” Yeo said. “It’s not going to work every time. It’s the players that make you look good.”
Thanks to improved depth, the Wild was able to navigate this season through key injuries to captain Mikko Koivu, second-leading scorer Zach Parise, young forwards Mikael Granlund and Coyle and defensemen Jared Spurgeon, Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner.
It has also had to manage through a goalie carousel.
Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding (league-leading 1.65 goals-against average) and Darcy Kuemper (12 wins) were all No. 1s at different junctures. Now, it’s Ilya Bryzgalov’s turn. Picked up at the trade deadline, he’s 7-0-3 in 10 starts with a 1.65 goals-against average.
Amazingly, the Wild has made the postseason despite no goalie starting more than 26 games or playing more than 29.
This could have blown up any place along the way if not for the defensive structure Yeo and his staff put in place. The Wild is the NHL’s fifth-best defensive team, allowing 2.36 goals per game and 27.7 shots, despite having the youngest blue line (26.1 years old) of any playoff team. Typically, the Wild’s goalies are asked to make key saves at key times but aren’t under assault like goalies on other teams.
“A director can [get] a really good script, but if you don’t have the right acting then it’s not going to be a very good movie,” Yeo said. “I think we give the guys a good plan, I think we prepare them, but the bottom line is we got the character, we got the leadership.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, to defend like that, to play like that, there’s going to be a selflessness required, there’s going to be a team-first attitude that’s required and it’s not easy.”
It is clear the coaches never lost the confidence of the players.
“You can tell how hard they work behind the scenes to prepare and make sure we know who we’re playing against and the way they play,” Parise said, “but more importantly I think they do a good job of communicating with us and getting a pulse of the team, what the team needs. For them to keep the team going and keep the team winning, they’ve done a fantastic job.”
Owner Craig Leipold has gone on record expecting a nice playoff run. Those expectations align with Yeo.
“It’ll be what it’ll be,” Yeo said of his job status. “I’m just trying to prove myself still. I’m not a guy who’s going to say, ‘Oh it’s really good I made it to the playoffs last year, I made it to the playoffs this year.’ My goal is not to make it to the playoffs, my goal is not to stick around. My goal is to win a Stanley Cup as a head coach.
“This year was an unbelievable opportunity for me to grow. The experiences, the things that I went through this year, going forward is going to help me a lot.”