Chuck Fletcher planned all along to wait until the end of the season to address the Wild’s coaching situation. For months, though, the team’s general manager took note of how Mike Yeo and his staff handled the challenges that kept coming.
Fletcher saw young players blossom under their guidance, and they didn’t panic when their biggest stars — and three goaltenders — were idled by injuries. And when things were at their worst, they kept a firm hand on the rudder. “At the exact point of the year when you thought we’d fall apart, we actually became a team,” Fletcher said. “A lot of work that went into that, and Mike and his staff deserve a lot of credit.”
Yeo got his reward last week, when Fletcher signed the third-year coach to a multiyear contract extension. Friday, the two discussed Yeo’s new deal and the work that lies ahead.
Fletcher said that Yeo, whose three-year contract was set to expire this month, was the only person he considered for the job. He also anticipates the rest of the coaching staff will sign contract extensions, probably by the end of next week. Fletcher already has re-signed the entire front-office staff and the Wild’s amateur scouts and expects to re-sign the pro scouts next week.
Though talks were briefly put on hold when Yeo left town to tend to a personal matter, the coach said Fletcher’s speed in beginning the process put his mind at ease. He was never nervous about his job status, he said, but he did feel “very relieved” to have the deal done so he can continue working toward next season.
“Three years ago, my goal was to create an identity for this hockey team and create a culture,” said Yeo, who is 104-82-26 in three seasons with the Wild. “I believe we’ve taken big steps toward both of those things. Our team has improved, and I believe I’ve improved as a coach.
“We’ve gotten a lot of pats on the back for the good season we had, and that’s nice. That said, we have to make sure we understand that the work starts right now for next year. We have to want more than what we got this year.”
Yeo said that during the season, he did feel some pressure when the Wild struggled. Learning to handle that was an important step in his personal development, he said; he believes he also has improved his motivational and team-building skills, as well as his ability to put players in proper roles and manage the bench.
In today’s NHL, Fletcher said, teams no longer have the luxury of developing all their players in the minor leagues. Much of that schooling must happen at the top level, and he lauded Yeo’s ability to nurture the many youngsters who played key roles for the Wild this season.
“When you look now at most of our young players, I’d be hard pressed to name one player that wasn’t better now than he was at the beginning of the year,” Fletcher said. “That’s just a tremendous advantage for our franchise.”
Fletcher also provided updates Friday on some injured Wild players. Defenseman Keith Ballard, who was sidelined for the final 14 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs, had surgery after the season to repair a sports hernia he suffered in March. Forward Erik Haula did not need surgery to repair his jaw, which was broken while he played for Finland in the world championships after the Wild’s season ended; Fletcher said he is drinking “lots of milkshakes” and will be fully healed soon.
Goaltender Niklas Backstrom’s rehabilitation after core muscle surgery is moving along smoothly. Fletcher said Backstrom feels better now than he did at any point last season, and he is expected to be at full strength by late July or early August. Goalie Josh Harding, who did not play after Dec. 31 because of symptoms of multiple sclerosis, is feeling well. “The goal for him is much like last summer, to build up and get to a point where he’s able to come into training camp and play well.”