ST. LOUIS – Minutes after Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher gave his coach a public vote of confidence and said he’s been “incredibly patient” with certain players, coach Mike Yeo made his brashest statement of the season by scratching a pair of skilled forwards against the St. Louis Blues.
Thomas Vanek and Jason Zucker, who each scored 21 goals last season, were each sanctioned to press row Saturday night.
The move was not only a loud and clear message to the slumping players, it was meant to jolt a team that had won three times in 15 games this calendar year and had lost nine of its previous 10 games.
“I believe in standing up for your players. I believe in the end that has benefits,” Yeo said. “There comes a time, though, where if we continue down the path that we’re going, we need to make some changes. And we’re at that point right now.”
The 32-year-old Vanek, who ranks 16th among active NHLers with 312 goals and eighth with 122 power-play goals, has three goals and six assists in the past 22 games and no shots in five of the past eight games. Zucker, 24, has no goals in the past 11 games and one assist in the past 37.
It appeared as if Yeo intentionally chose one vet and one youngster in order to have the most impact on the team.
“It says we have to start playing a lot better,” Zach Parise said. “They’re really good players, but that’s the spot we’re in right now.”
Vanek and Zucker walked into Scottrade Center’s visitors’ locker room Saturday morning and saw their numbers weren’t listed on the board. Yeo didn’t say a word to them. They were skated hard after the morning skate by assistant coaches Darby Hendrickson and Andrew Brunette.
“I had a meeting with the team this morning and there were enough things said in that,” Yeo said. “I feel very confident that we handled this the right way. And that’s what we need right now is leadership, and leadership is doing the right thing first. That’s my job to make sure that we keep doing the right thing and eventually people will follow.”
Neither player was happy, but each took the high road.
“There’s no time for me or this team to pout around,” Vanek said of his first healthy scratch since the 2005-06 playoffs — his rookie year. “We need to win, so if he thinks by taking me out it’s a better lineup, I’ve got to respect that, work hard and make sure I get back in there and prove him wrong. We’re losing games, things need to change, and [Saturday] I’m the change.”
Added Zucker: “I’ll be the first one to tell you I haven’t been on top of my game. This is the NHL. This isn’t college or juniors where you can just flow through a season. This is the best league in the world for a reason and if you’re not playing well, you’re not going to play.”
With the exception of a few players, Fletcher said, “I’m not happy with the play of anybody, really.” In an eight-minute interview with reporters, Fletcher said 13 times it’s time for players to start playing “the right way.”
Yeo clearly felt Vanek and Zucker have not.
“If you’re not scoring, you can’t be giving up chances, you can’t be high risk, you can’t be a liability out there,” Yeo said of Zucker. “When I think of Zucker, some of the best hockey that he’s played, he’s been very determined — whether it’s to prove that he belongs a little higher in the lineup or in the lineup. That determination fuels his game and I haven’t seen a lot of that lately.”
Zucker said “a lot of things” in his game are missing, while Vanek says his issue is confidence.
“I didn’t just all of a sudden forget how to play the game,” Vanek said. “A guy in my position, if you don’t produce, you’re out.”
In the meantime, Fletcher, who continues to work toward trying to make a trade, said Yeo’s job is safe.
Even if the losing continues?
“Look, we’re going to turn this around, that’s where our focus is right now,” Fletcher said. “This group, the coaches and players have won a lot of games, they know what it takes, and I’m looking to our leadership group right now to step up and I’m looking for the players to play the right way and I’m confident that we’ll get there.
“We have 31 games to go. There’s lots of time, but it’s getting late quickly here.”