What a difference a year makes.
Monday marked the anniversary of the firing of Mike Yeo. Last Feb. 13, the Wild lost for the 13th time in 14 games, held in ninth place in the Western Conference and was in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in four years.
Interim coach John Torchetti guided the Wild into the playoffs, but a first-round exit actually provided the Wild the good fortune to hire Bruce Boudreau. Had the Wild advanced, there’s a decent chance the soon-to-be fired Anaheim Ducks coach would have chosen another opportunity before the Wild got a crack.
A year later, the Wild faces Boudreau’s old Ducks on Tuesday night in first place in both the Western Conference and Central Division, on pace for a franchise-record 119 points, on pace to shatter the team goals record and one win from last year’s 82-game total of 38.
“It’s funny, coaching,” said goalie Devan Dubnyk, 24-3-2 in his past 29 starts. “Yeozie’s a great coach. But it’s like any coach, eventually, especially if things start to go south and guys have been here for a really long time, and it’s the same voice forever, sometimes you just need a new voice.
“It’s unfortunate. It’s not anything to do with that coach or how they coach. Sometimes, in sports, you just need a new voice. Look at the job Yeozie’s already doing in St. Louis.”
The Blues are 5-1 since Yeo took over for Ken Hitchcock. Under Boudreau, the Wild has lost consecutive games in regulation once all season. In 33 games since Dec. 1, the Wild has points in 29 (26-4-3).
The Wild is 14-3-2 (30 points) in 2017. When Yeo was fired last Feb. 13, the Wild was 3-12-4 (10 points) in 2016.
Asked if he ever could have envisioned such an immediate turnaround, Boudreau said, “Yeah.”
“When you take jobs or go into the season, if you look at it like, ‘Geez, man, I hope to make the playoffs,’ then I think you’re defeated before you start,” Boudreau said. “You shoot for the moon and you think of the best things that are going to happen and you try to achieve those goals. There’s no sense putting goals in front of you that are easy to achieve. Then it wouldn’t be right.”
In parts of five seasons, Yeo’s Wild ranked 30th, 22nd, 24th, 12th and 22nd in goals per game. The Wild, which averaged 2.45 goals per game at this time last season, has scored 3.4 goals per game this season, fourth in the NHL.
The Wild’s leading scorer when Yeo was fired was Mikko Koivu with 37 points. This season, the Wild has six players with more than that, led by Mikael Granlund’s 50. The Wild has a league-best eight players with at least 30 points and a league-best 10 players with double-digits goals.
At the time of Yeo’s firing, the Wild ranked 15th in the NHL with a .913 save percentage. This season, it’s tied for first at .925, led by Dubnyk’s league-best 31 wins, 1.99 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.
“You look up and down the lineup, five, six, seven guys are having career years,” Zach Parise said. “Guys are putting the puck in the net at rates they haven’t in the past, and we’re all benefiting.”
Defensively, Parise says the Wild is more aggressive in its own zone under Boudreau and assistant Scott Stevens.
“We were very passive where we were OK sitting in our zone for 30 seconds,” Parise said in January. “We did OK at it. At the same time, it’s 30 seconds and now we’ve got to get off. With Scotty, the way he’s taught our D, with how well they can skate, it’s, ‘Let’s jump on them, let’s make them uncomfortable right away, let’s get the puck and get out of the zone and not let them sit in there for 30 seconds.’ ”
Parise said Boudreau’s strength is how good he makes players feel about the way they’re playing. He says there’s a lot of correcting with video, showing how things are supposed to be done and what happens when they’re not done correctly.
“The teaching that all of [the coaches] have done is a lot different, and I think that we’re learning a lot more,” Parise said.
Charlie Coyle loved Yeo, saying, “He was my first coach in the NHL. I progressed a lot under him. But sometimes, I don’t know, things just happen and you need a new voice. A lot of things have caused our success this year. Guys are a year older, more confident. But we just trust the way we’re playing and are doing it.”
Not letting up
Boudreau has brought a demand for accountability from Wild players.
“He’s easy to be around. You don’t have to walk on eggshells around him. But at the same time, he demands a lot from everybody,” Dubnyk said. “He gets the best out of you because it doesn’t matter if you won 10 games in a row, if I’ve got 10 shutouts in a row, if I go out and I’m lazy and play brutal next game, that’s not good enough for him. Same for everybody.”
A perfect example was Monday’s practice. Boudreau wasn’t pleased with Sunday’s sloppiness despite a 6-3 victory over Detroit. Even General Manager Chuck Fletcher said the cheating offensively, “hope plays all over the ice,” and blue line turnovers were masked by the score.
“Had we played a little better we might not have been here [Monday],” Dubnyk said. “It wasn’t any sort of punishment, and Bruce said that. But he said our game’s been getting a little bit sloppy, and we haven’t practiced a lot lately.”
Added Coyle, “He’s pretty good at seeing things come undone before everyone else does.”
As good as the Wild has been, it has four tough games against conference opponents before its five-day bye. And despite the extraordinary about-face in a calendar year, there’s no trophy for winning the conference 55 games into a season.
“There’s still a third of the season to go. It doesn’t take much to have the train come off the tracks,” Fletcher said.