The Minnesota Wild are providing a glimmer of hope for the suffering fans of the State of Hockey as winter falls upon us. After a dramatic shootout win in Edmonton on Wednesday night, the Minnesota Wild now have their best start in the 11 year history of the franchise. “You’re now f-ing with the best in the world” as Minnesota has flirted with the top of the NHL standings, currently sit tied atop the Western Conference, and reside comfortably atop the Northwest Division, all before the calendar turns to December. The Wild are not longer a lollipop on the schedule of other teams, and much of the credit goes to new coach Mike Yeo. For more on Yeo and the dramatic turnaround for the Team of 18,000, continue after the jump.
After starting the season 3-3-3, and showing very little signs of understanding new coach Mike Yeo’s new system, the Minnesota Wild have been red hot, tearing their way to the top of the National Hockey League. The team has excelled despite scoring more than two or three goals in most games. However, the team has been clutch. Goals late in multiple games have salvaged not only free points by getting to overtime, but has allowed the team to grab extra wins. Wins that the Wild couldn’t win last season.
Yeo has proven his worth over the years, first being a part of the team who built the championship Penguins teams, along with GM Chuck Fletcher, and excelling in his first chance as a head coach last year in Houston. Yeo led the Wild’s minor league affiliate to the Calder Cup Finals, losing in six games to Binghamton. Fletcher moved quickly this summer to have a coach in place before he began his roster makeover with the trades of Brent Burns for Devin Setoguchi and Martin Havlat for Dany Heatley. The logic was simple. Many of the players about to come through the Wild system were tutored by Yeo in Houston last year. The veteran Wild players already were conditioned to a defensive style after years with Jaques Lemaire. Yeo promised an uptempo, pressure system, and would use the Wild’s young legs and speed to attack opposing teams in the offensive zone. Wild the team tends to give up more breakaways with the uptick in pressure, the defensemen, who were panned by nearly ever NHL pundits before the season for being too inexperienced and inadequate at the pro level, have shown discipline and intelligence in when to stay home, and when to join the attack.
Yeo’s system is much like a college basketball press, with constant pressure on the puck, and converting turnovers to either offensive zone sustained pressure, or ultimately goals. And unlike most teams in the NHL, did not go with a retread coach to lead their new era. Yeo has show he has a sharp hockey mind all season long, evolving as the game goes on, creating line up changes to change momentum and get goals. After watching the Wild in person earlier this week, the team looks like a group who has completely bought into what Yeo is saying, and more importantly, teaching. The team has yet to appear out coached yet, and Yeo has been able to reset the team’s focus after losses so far this year. While the lineup isn’t consistent, the fast tempo, aggressive nature of Yeo’s pressure system has been throughout the year, through every period. This year the team has rarely come out flat in periods, and on only a couple occasions have come out and played the second period of doom that tormented the team last year. Yeo has responded to the team’s effort in a positive way. Essentially, Yeo plays those who are playing hardest and showing the best hockey. He isn’t afraid to juggle the lineup and ride the hot players. Yeo has shuffled between goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, showing no fear in going with the hot goalie. Both have responded with great seasons so far, despite facing an abusive amount of shots every night. Even Cal Clutterbuck has slid his way into the top line with Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley, and responded with points in multiple games over the teams winning stretch. This is a franchise that is responding positively to change. They went the right way in rebuilding the team, going with a smart, young coach and young, home grown players. These moves are almost a necessity in today’s NHL, and Yeo has proven to be more than worthy of being an NHL coach.
While many still feel the Wild don’t score enough (they’re 27th in the league in scoring), their shut down defense (4th in the league at goals against per game) and ability to score clutch and timely goals show the Wild made the right decision in hiring a new coach in the offseason and beginning the roster overhaul with the young prospects. Minnesota hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007, and while the difference between home ice advantage throughout the playoffs and sitting home on the couch come April is only four points right now, the Wild will be a tough out down the stretch and into the postseason if they can keep up this type of play all season long. Not only will Yeo win himself a Coach of the Year award, but the Minnesota Wild could be on the verge of the type of season the franchise has only seen once in its brief existence: a deep playoff run.
Bryan Vickroy has an addiction to hockey, and is willing to partake in all its forms. He is skating extra shifts for The Sports Bank, covering the Minnesota Wild, the NHL, and NCAA hockey all year long. Look for new articles throughout the week. He can be followed on Twitter at @bryanvickroy. If you’d prefer to speak in more than 140 characters at a time to him, he can be reached at email@example.com .