Darryl Sydor remembers driving to Xcel Energy Center thinking “that was it.”
The temperature was below zero on that morning, Dec. 30, after the assistant coach spent a sleepless night following the Wild blowing a three-goal lead at home to the New York Islanders.
The team’s coaching staff — every member in the last year of his contract — was under fire. Fans and media members were calling for heads. The owner was getting antsy and the general manager was under pressure.
With the Wild in the middle of a 5-12-1 slide, head coach Mike Yeo seemed headed for an immediate dismissal.
“There were days where it was really tough to come to the rink, not knowing what was going to happen,” said Sydor, a longtime NHL defenseman who came with Yeo from Houston when he became the Wild’s third head coach on June 17, 2011.
Yeo, the youngest coach in the NHL at age 40, was under intense scrutiny. Every decision was questioned. Every personnel move criticized. Every word that left his lips dissected.
Behind the scenes, Yeo stood firm. He didn’t panic, didn’t change his coaching philosophies. He faced reporters daily, answered the tough questions and never lost his cool. And most impressively, he kept the dressing room together, telling players how much he believed in them.
On Jan. 1, before practice following a sixth consecutive defeat, Yeo gathered the team on the ice and said, “I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, I’m going to coach not to try to save my job” but “to give us a chance to get back on track, get back in the playoff race and keep building toward our ultimate goal.”
The Wild won the next four games. It is 23-9-7 since, and has the third-most points (53) in the NHL over that span. This week, not only will Yeo coach the Wild in the playoffs for the second time, if the Wild beats Nashville in Sunday’s regular-season finale, Yeo will have coached only the second 100-point Wild team in franchise history.
Thursday morning, hours before coaching the Wild to a fourth consecutive victory, over the St. Louis Blues, Yeo sat in his office and looked back to the breaking point that became the season’s turning point.
“When you really care about something and there is a chance you could lose it, of course it’s hard,” Yeo said. “I know that it’s part of the job. I signed up for that and I accept that. I know I’d be OK, but when you go back home and you’re looking at your kids and they love it here so much and this has been more of a home to them than anywhere, that’s really hard.
“But honestly, it was like the harder things got, the more determined I got. It was also fuel for me. To me, this was part of the experience of growing as a coach that I hadn’t gone through yet that I knew I had to go through.”
Yeo, Sydor, veteran assistant coach Rick Wilson, assistant coach Darby Hendrickson and goalie coach Bob Mason are in the final days of their contracts. That’s almost unheard of for an NHL playoff team.
Despite the unenviable position, Yeo has mostly pushed the right buttons during the season’s second half.
“We’ve dealt with situations where it doesn’t look too peachy and you’ve got to find ways to win,” Sydor said. “You have to be a professional in all situations, good or bad. We have a job to do, and that’s where I give Mike a lot of credit. Through that tough stretch, he didn’t change his course, he didn’t change his belief in coaching. I think the players really bought into it.”
Defenseman Ryan Suter says that’s exactly what happened.
“It’s not your coaches that lose you games,” he said.
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.”