The Wild snapped a four-year playoff drought last spring when it pulled out a must-win game at Colorado to grab the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Minnesota looks to build on that this season, albeit with a very different looking team. Following an offseason that was a far cry from 2012 when the Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year deals, general manager Chuck Fletcher had to work to get cap compliant.
That led to the subtraction of four key forwards — Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard — and defenseman Tom Gilbert. The Wild signed veteran forward Matt Cooke and former Gophers defenseman Keith Ballard.
The Wild will be relying on the continued growth of youngsters Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and Jonas Brodin and a solid base of veterans — Parise, Suter, captain Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Jason Pominville and goaltender Niklas Backstrom.
On Wednesday, the Wild begins a three-week training camp, which includes six exhibition games and a two-day getaway to Duluth, before opening the season Oct. 3 against the Los Angeles Kings.
As Mike Yeo heads into his third season, the Wild coach sat down with the Star Tribune for a Q and A:
Q: Will there be any system tweaks this season?
Yeo: Our fans will really enjoy this. We’re going to be more aggressive off the rush. We want to be more of a puck possession team, so it’s as simple as asking, ‘Who gets the puck after you have it?’ We’re going to have to execute better on the wall coming out of the defensive zone, execute better on our entries, but at the same time, with that, you’ve also got to make sure that you’re not just turning into a high-risk team and turning pucks over. So if you turn a puck over at the offensive blue line and they go down and score, then that’s not helping us. That’s not making us a better team. But we want to keep the puck. We don’t want to just give it up.
Q: That sounds like you’re saying you’ll be less “dump and chase?”
Yeo: I hate that people think that we’re a dump-and-chase team. It’s completely false. I count it as a turnover. If we dump the puck in and the goalie touches the puck, that’s a turnover for me. If it’s a pass into space where we can get the puck, then that’s a good play. It’s a bad play if we put the puck into a place where the other team gets it and we’re backchecking. But there’s going to be a focus for us to try to create more offensively off the rush. So our entries, we have to find ways to attack the zone with more speed, make more plays with support on our entries so we’re carrying the puck inside the blue line with the puck still on our stick. It’ll give us a chance to score more goals, but we’re going to have to be patient early in the year. It’s going to lead to mistakes and mistakes lead to scoring chances and goals.
Q: What’s your biggest question mark going into camp?
Yeo: Who’s on our team? (laughs) Who plays with who? Honestly, I’ve got about 1,000 different combinations right now. Every day I go in the office, my board changes about three times. Last year, with one week of camp, the purpose of our camp was to get guys together, to keep them together, to build chemistry. This time, it’s going to be very different. You’re going to see a lot of different guys playing with different people, guys playing in different positions, as well. Day 1 of camp is going to be one thing and Day 2 of camp is going to be something different — with some exceptions. Say, if Mikko, Zach and Pominville are a line Day 1 and have a really good day, then I’m probably not going to switch them up. But we have to figure out where we want guys and who’s clicking with who.
Q: Fair to say Coyle and Mikael Granlund are going head-to-head for the second-line center spot?
Yeo: I would say, yeah.
Q: What do you expect from Granlund after a disappointing rookie year?
A: He’s flying right under the radar this year, which is perfect. That’s fine. With young kids, with that kind of skill, you have to have some patience. Some of them find it right away, some of them, it takes them a little bit longer. And he’s got bigger adjustments to make than most because he’s been playing on the bigger ice surface, the type of game that he plays, the way that he’s been able to use the extra space, and with that extra time, it’s different here. We saw last year that it was an adjustment for him, it wasn’t exactly the easiest of situation for him to step into, but he’s a very talented kid. I’m hoping he comes in and is at his best right away, but if it’s not, I’m also at the point we have to give this kid a real good chance to see what he can get to.
Q: Fair to say Coyle and Zucker are on the team?
Yeo: I want to see improvement. I thought Charlie really established himself as a player. He came in and for a long period of time played a consistent game. Zuck, he has the flashes that draw everybody’s attention and I know he’s a fan favorite, but the bottom line for me, I want to see the consistency in him now. We can’t have a flash here and there every game; we can’t have a good game, bad game. There’s got to be stretches of good game, good game, good game. As a young kid, obviously, there’s going to be times where you make mistakes or you’re not at your best, but how quickly can you get back to your game, how quickly can you get back to being effective? And that’s what I want to see from him.
Q: Are you most concerned with Zucker’s defense?
Yeo: He’s improved in all those areas. It goes back to that puck possession game that we want to play. I want to see him on the wall in the defensive zone making plays on exits, I want to see him making plays on entries, in the offensive zone — he gets the puck and the other team’s not going to get it. It’s going to still be on our stick, whether that’s him protecting it or cycling to one of his teammates. It’s showing that strength to shield somebody and hang onto the puck.
Q: Which other kids have shots for jobs?
Yeo: Some kids, you pencil in right from the start and others have to earn it. Nino [Niederreiter] is going to get a real good look. [Justin] Fontaine is a guy I’m very interested in seeing. Last year, the way things worked out, he hasn’t gotten a chance yet. He’s going to have to earn it, but I’m very curious and anxious to see how he does at this level. I want to see how [Zack] Phillips and [Brett] Bulmer’s doing, and we’ve got to make sure Bulmer’s healthy. [Erik] Haula had a great development camp. And Matt [Dumba] will get a great shot.
Q: You mentioned pencil, is Suter and Brodin being a tandem the only thing in pen?
Yeo: I’d say, yes, but I think it would also be valuable in camp for those guys to get an opportunity to play with different guys, as well. I think Brodin’s minutes can go up and we may drop Suter’s minutes a little, although they’ll both get lots of minutes, meaning there’s going to be times where they’ll play with different guys.
Q: Speaking of which, Parise told me this summer that he likes getting accustomed to playing with two centers. He played with Koivu virtually every shift last year. Do you think you need to be more flexible with him this season.
Yeo: I don’t think that we’ve been a great adjustment team. We like to keep our lines for the most part the same if things are going well because we like certain guys in certain roles, but we’ve got to get better with adjustments. Also with our game. Many times we wanted to adjust and haven’t been good enough. In the early part of the year, we’ll be more aggressive with those things so we become a better team.
Q: Will Heatley get top-line action again?
Yeo: Some of the best hockey that that line [with Parise and Koivu] played, Heater was on the line. Those guys were putting up points. A big reason why we switched it is we needed to balance things out. We were getting scoring from that line and nobody else. I would be awfully surprised if you didn’t see them together at some point this year. For Dany, it’s a big year for him (contract year), and I know that he’s really motivated and I want to put him in a spot where he can be successful because I think he’s going to have a good year. I really do. He’s been working hard this summer and we missed him big time last year. When he got hurt, his size and scoring ability and his hands — those are all things we were lacking. We have to make sure he’s playing with guys that can help get him the puck and put him in position where he can score goals.
Q: Is it now or never for Marco Scandella?
Yeo: This typically is a year where defensemen make a big jump and we need that from him. The most common thing with young players is inconsistency. That’s impressive to me about a Brodin and Coyle. They know what their game is and play it night after night for the most part. We’ll make sure those guys are coming in with the same attitude that they have to prove themselves and can’t take a step backward. But Marco must take a step forward. We need Marco to be able to deliver night in and night out. He’s going to have a huge role on the team.
Q: How much do you need a bounceback year from Kyle Brodziak?
Yeo: He will. It was a messed-up year. It was just different. When I was at the draft, every coach I talked to was just incredibly frustrated with the [48-game, 99-day] season, with how you felt you had to coach, and things you had to let your team get away with, and the way you felt handcuffed. It was just a really difficult year. And I think it was the same way for the players. If things weren’t going well, there wasn’t an opportunity to take a step back and regain any type of traction. It just felt like you were clawing away all year long and couldn’t quite grab hold. Brodzy was a good example. He was sick at the start of the year and it had a big effect on him. And when things were not going well, he seemed to be the lightning rod for it. A lot of it was mental, not being at his best. But I think it was the circumstances of the season. So I’ve got full confidence he will bounce back and have a good year for us and develop a chemistry with Cooke. Brodzy has a huge role on the team. We talk about No. 2 center, but a lot of times you’re using Brodzy as the No. 2 centerman just based on ice time. I’m counting on him being a hard guy to play against and I have no doubt he will be.
Q: Where does Nate Prosser fit in with Scandella in the mix, Dumba getting a shot, Ballard signed and Jared Spurgeon and Clayton Stoner in the fold?
Yeo: I want to give Pross a good chance in camp and I think he can step up and be more than a seventh defenseman. I know when we put him in the lineup, we won a lot of games last year. So I want all our defensemen to make sure they’re ready and know this guy is ready to push for more than a seventh defensemen spot. [Jonathon] Blum, too, has great experience in Nashville, so I think that was a really good organization signing.
Q: You’re entering the final year of your contract. Have you talked to Chuck about an extension?
Yeo: No. Believe it or not, it doesn’t worry me. You know me; that’s not the way my brain operates. This is where I want to stay. This is where I want to be, this is who I want to coach. But the one thing I’ve promised myself this year, everyday I’m just going to coach my butt off. And one thing I will say for sure, there will never be a day where I coach to save my job. I’m coaching to win.
Q: How critical was it to win that final game in Colorado and make the playoffs?
A: It was such an important step for our group. You could see it in our players, that last stretch of actually clinching it. You could see it in all of us; we knew how important it was. That fear can be almost paralyzing. But we overcame it and now we don’t have that fear. We can’t say that we haven’t made the playoffs in four years. We made the playoffs last year. And now our focus is on something bigger than that.