Mike Yeo, at age 41, remains the youngest coach in the NHL. He encountered so many challenges and unique circumstances this season that his next birthday should be counted as a dog year.
Mumps, injuries, family deaths, gambling admissions, awful goaltending, remarkable goaltending, can’t win, can’t lose and one blue-ribbon tirade in which Yeo took poetic license with the phrase “whoop-de-do.”
Yeo probably feels like a crusty, veteran coach after all he’s witnessed this season, which has made him appreciate this Wild team even more than most seasons.
“I feel like I’m a lucky guy,” he said.
Yeo’s team has advanced to the second round of the playoffs for a second consecutive season and looks fully capable of making a deep run.
The Wild has been the NHL’s best team since mid-January, thanks largely to Devan Dubnyk, the season saver and MVP candidate.
The Wild wouldn’t be in this position without Dunbyk. That’s not even debatable.
But Yeo also deserves recognition for the Wild’s about-face because he displayed the right touch in handing his team in crisis and in prosperity.
“He’s had a lot of patience,” Zach Parise said.
Professional hockey isn’t known for its patience with coaches. Owners distribute pink slips like fliers at a street rally whenever a team struggles or underachieves.
Wild owner Craig Leipold and General Manager Chuck Fletcher showed wisdom in resisting that knee-jerk response in stressful times the past two seasons. They placed their faith in Yeo and are being rewarded for not appeasing the hashtag yo-yos that call for Yeo’s dismissal every time adversity hits.
“[He] never gave up on us,” center Charlie Coyle said. “He believes in us, and we believe in him, too.”
Yeo has matured as a coach the past two seasons, particularly in the playoffs. He maintained a cool demeanor when his team fell behind 2-0 to Colorado in the first round last year and his players reflected his outlook by not panicking.
Yeo outcoached Ken Hitchcock in the first series by convincing his players to turn their cheek in response to the St. Louis Blues’ bully tactics. That’s not an easy sell when an opponent is delivering cheap shots and punches to the chest, but the strategy clearly affected the Blues’ psyche.
We can quibble with Yeo’s loyalty to underperforming veterans or his personnel decisions on the power play. But in terms of the big picture, the culture and philosophy that he has instilled feels like a winning formula.
Yeo’s defense-first structure works, if given the right mix of players. And his quiet intensity strikes a balance between being firm and fair.
He also knows a thing or two about navigating tough times.
“I think he learned a lot last year,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “I think you could see that [in] the way he handled this year. I’m not saying he didn’t handle that well last year, but I think he was even more calm and he was just talking about the trust for the things that we were supposed to do.”
That approach resonates with players, knowing a coach still trusts them and his system, even when things appear to be crumbling. Yeo handled the extremes of this season with a consistent message.
His style reminds me of a pilot who comes over the intercom when severe turbulence starts bouncing the plane all over the sky.
Well, folks, just a few bumps here. Keep your seat belt fastened while we look for some smooth air.
Of course, he did have that one practice when he snapped and acted like a bull barreling out of the chute. Yeo blistered his players for sleepwalking through practice, smashing his stick and using salty language to drive home his point.
Even the most patient souls reach a boiling point and need a good meltdown to clear their mind.
“It would’ve been easy earlier to start flipping desks and breaking sticks — which he did once,” Parise said, smiling. “But with the stuff that we were dealing with at the beginning of the year, he stayed patient with us and we turned it around.”
That turnaround caused Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice to stump for Yeo as NHL Coach of the Year, saying he should be a “front-runner.”
Yeo certainly has a strong case if the sum of this season is considered — the good, bad and just plain weird.