WINNIPEG – Mike Yeo cracks a big grin when asked how he feels about his first season as an NHL coach.
“Every day is the best day of my life,” said the rookie coach of the league-leading Minnesota Wild.
The team’s third coach in four seasons, Yeo is getting plenty of attention for turning around a Wild team that finished 20th last season.
Minnesota’s 20-7-3 record going into Tuesday’s game against Winnipeg represents the best start in the franchise’s 11-year history, thanks to three separate winning streaks of five games or more.
But Yeo (pronounced YO) deflects personal praise, pointing to his team for the turnaround.
“I think the key to our success was, right from the start, right from Day 1, the attitude the guys brought to camp, the commitment that they had, the determination that they had, to set things right,” he said.
“We’ve pushed them hard, there’s no question, but they’ve responded and they’ve pushed each other and they’ve pushed themselves and it’s a group that cares very much about each other and is trying to build something.”
The 37-year-old native of North Bay, Ont., looks younger than half of his players, but commands respect.
“There’s accountability. There’s an exception here that we want to build a winning team and a winning culture and we just can’t accept bad games,” second-line centre Matt Cullen said. “You’re going to lose from time to time, but it’s not going to be because of a lack of effort.”
Yeo says he started with no preconceptions, gave everyone a chance and waited to see how they developed.
“We wanted to create a winning culture. We’re not there yet. Have things gone well for us? Yes, there’s no question we’re very happy to be where we’re at, but we haven’t done it yet and so I don’t think anybody’s getting too excited about the fact we’re sitting in first place right now.”
Yeo took the Wild’s AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros, to a 46-28-1-5 record and the Calder Cup final in his first season as head coach in 2010-11.
So he has worked with players like Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella, who learned Yeo’s system with the Aeros in the AHL last season.
The Wild have created some clear synergy between their team and their farm club, putting the call-ups in better position to play well when they’re summoned.
The entire Minnesota system is as stocked with legitimate prospects as it has been in years, too, the product of several trades and signings general manager Chuck Fletcher has pushed through to supplement the three drafts he has supervised since taking over for the fired Doug Risebrough.
Minnesota’s minor league affiliate in Houston has the second-best record in the 30-team AHL, and goalie Darcy Kuemper was picked Monday as the AHL’s Player of the Week.
Kuemper’s honour was made possible when regular goalie Matt Hackett was recalled by the Wild last week as injury insurance. With Niklas Backstrom already bothered by a groin problem, Josh Harding hurt his neck just 71 seconds into the game at San Jose last Tuesday during a freak collision with a teammate’s stick.
So in went Hackett, who won his NHL debut and the game after that while stopping a combined 76 of 78 shots. Hackett, who set a record by starting his career with 102 minutes and 48 seconds without giving up a goal, was named the NHL’s second star for the week.
Good goaltending has long been the Wild’s best attribute, from Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson in the early years to the Backstrom-Harding duo they’ve had more recently. They’re sixth and seventh in the league, respectively, with a .932 save percentage, and Minnesota’s 2.1 goals-per-game average is third in the NHL.
Centre Kyle Brodziak, the third-line centre, leads the Wild with 10 goals. In the league? He’s tied for 40th, the most obvious sign of a balanced offence that has used a so-far unwavering commitment to Yeo’s system.
With files from Dave Campbell of The Associated Press in St. Paul, Minn.