Mike Yeo, wearing a Twins cap and salmon-colored T-shirt, was relaxed as could be. The Wild coach walked around the State Fair with barely a stress in the world. In between lighthearted radio interviews, Yeo posed for pictures with fans; scooped up a pun-intended, “Stick Save” corn dog shirt; and ate a steak sandwich before washing it down with french-fried ravioli.
As he strolled the streets in anticipation of watching Def Leppard rock the grandstand, the soon-to-be fifth-year coach put on his sunglasses, looked to the sky and said, “You know, it sure would be nice to just have a good ole, boring, 110- or 120-point season this year.”
But with a big chuckle, Yeo added, “I’m also not expecting smooth sailing either.”
This is, after all, the cutthroat NHL Western Conference and … this is the Wild.
Massive peaks and steep valleys have become the norm during a Yeo tenure highlighted by three consecutive playoff appearances. But the past two years required incredible second halves to save the Wild’s bacon.
Take last season: After the All-Star break, the Wild had a six-game losing streak bookended by 7-1 and 7-2 losses, was in 23rd place in the NHL and seven points from a playoff spot. The team had traded for goalie Devan Dubnyk, however; in 24 games before his arrival, the Wild won seven times, allowed 3.52 goals per game and had a goal differential of minus-26.
In its final 40 games, the Wild won 28 times, gave up a league-low 71 goals, had the league’s best goal differential of plus-45 and didn’t lose consecutive regulation games to finish with 100 points.
Yeo would sure love to coach an even-keeled team, one with no mumps or heartache or goalie drama; a team that doesn’t need a players-only meeting every other week; and one that can stop any losing streak in its tracks before his job security becomes a daily headline.
“That’s the plan,” Dubnyk said. “At the end of last year, we were able to really understand how good of a team we are. We’d like to be in a position where we go 27-9 in the end because we want to, not because we have to.”
The Wild has a knack for getting out of these precarious positions, but would like to avoid them in the first place. Yeo said, “We’re mature enough now to know what to expect.”
Players reported for training camp at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday, speaking with the usual preseason optimism of a group that hasn’t lost a game yet.
But Yeo also cautioned his team. He doesn’t want the potential negativity of a four-game sweep and third consecutive elimination to the Chicago Blackhawks to filter into this season. He wants his players to remember they were one of the best teams in the NHL in the second half, a team that impressed by beating the rival St. Louis Blues in the first round.
Part of his concern is the external anxiety that the Wild is basically returning the same pieces.
“We’re a team at really a critical point in our organization,” Yeo said. “When you have excitement but kind of fall short and there’s disappointment, many teams take a very bad turn for the worse. It raises a lot of questions. We have to make sure we get better, but at the same time we have to stay the course a little bit here, too.”
The Wild had solid performances last season. Zach Parise tied for 10th in the NHL with 33 goals, Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter each eclipsed 20 goals for the first time and defensemen Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin all had strong years.
But in order for the Wild to reach another level, the veteran core of Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and Ryan Suter must improve and the young core of Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula must take the next step in their careers.
Last season, Yeo seemed to defer to the veterans. He started almost every power play with the experience-laden No. 1 unit. When he needed a goal late, he turned to his trusted leaders.
Yeo said he feels too much has been made of this, noting the minutes, roles and responsibilities for most his young players have increased.
“They’re developing the right way and if those guys deserve to be there, they’ll be there,” Yeo said. “I agree, we have to find a way to get past the second round of the playoffs. Otherwise, we’re doing a lot of pretty good things but not the ultimate. So whatever it takes, we have to take a step as a group.
“Every night, it’s going to be somebody else’s chance. Maybe Granlund’s out there one night and Koivu the next. Maybe Suter’s out there one night and [Matt] Dumba or Spurg or Scandy the next. We’re all pulling for the same thing. Pat each other on the back when it’s their turn and be happy when it’s ours.”
Asked if that will take massaging some egos, Yeo said: “That’s my job to grab hold of that. The only thing those players want is the same thing as everyone else: They want it to be fair and they want to win. If we’re putting somebody else out there and they feel like they should be there and we’re losing games, then that’s maybe when questions arise.
“But if we’re winning hockey games, then that’s the only thing that matters.”
General Manager Chuck Fletcher expects the young players will hit their peak soon. Part of the reason he says he jettisoned some vets was to allow them more opportunity.
“As they earn the trust of the coaches, I think their role will continue to grow,” Fletcher said. “They’ll be justly rewarded if they have a good camp.”
Veterans on board
Koivu, entering his 11th season, said veterans must accept younger guys biting off more ice time and responsibility.
“If we want to improve, that’s the reality,” Koivu said. “All the good teams I’ve been on, you have more than one line, you have two [power-play units] that can do it. These kids, they’re ready … and they’ve earned it.”
Parise agreed, saying: “I hate calling them our young kids because they’re not. It’s their fourth year in the league. We need them to get better. I think each one of our veteran players themselves would say they need to be better, too. And we will be.”
The conference and division are so competitive that making the playoffs is an accomplishment. Several teams in the West should be better. But Yeo also thinks the Wild is in the championship mix.
“It’s hard to win the Stanley Cup, and only one team gets to do that,” Yeo said. “The rest of the teams are left asking questions. We’re close. We’re not quite there. We’ll do the same thing we’ve always done. Try to get better.
“We’re a contender. I don’t think anybody around the league would be willing to write us off right now. But we have to ready for the hard parts. And there will be hard parts.”