ST. PAUL, Minn. – When the Minnesota Wild hired Mike Yeo as a first-time NHL head coach, he fit their criteria for a bench boss who could develop several top, young players.
Yeo has undergone his own growth in that time, too, and the Wild were satisfied enough with the results on both fronts to make another commitment to him.
After his three-year contract extension was finalized last weekend, Yeo appeared with general manager Chuck Fletcher at a news conference Friday to discuss the deal and the team’s future.
The Wild advanced to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history, and Fletcher praised Yeo’s ability to help keep the players on an even keel during some challenging stretches as injuries piled up.
“He improved by leaps and bounds, and it’s not just understanding that you have to make those adjustments. It’s the confidence to make them, and the confidence to sell them to your team,” Fletcher said, recalling their conversation from last summer about areas where both the Wild and Yeo could improve.
In the final year of his contract, Yeo was in a precarious place after a six-game losing streak to finish 2013. But despite notable absences by Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and the top two goalies, Yeo and his staff not only held together the group but guided a resurgence that transcended the regular season.
“I’d be hard-pressed to sit here and name one player that wasn’t better now than what he was at the beginning of the year,” Fletcher said, adding: “The funny thing: At the exact point in the year when you thought we’d fall apart, we actually became a team. And there’s a lot of work that went into that, and again Mike and his staff deserve a lot of that.”
Yeo, who will turn 41 next month, has a career record of 104-82-26, plus 7-11 in the playoffs. Though Fletcher waited until June to address his status, Yeo said there was never a point at which he became nervous. That’s a hallmark of his, actually, as evidenced by his demeanour through and triumph over the losing streaks and fluke injuries of the 2013-14 season. Yeo gave four different goalies 10 or more starts each, and the carousel didn’t stop spinning once the playoffs came.
Darcy Kuemper and Ilya Bryzgalov both took turns, due to injury and performance, but the Wild beat Colorado 4-3 in a first-round thriller and gave Chicago fits until falling 4-2.
“The team took on Mike’s demeanour, and I think that helped us get through,” Fletcher said. “‘Hey, we’re down 2-0. No big deal. They come back late and score? No big deal.’ We just kept finding a way to hang around and hang around until we could put the last shot in the net.”
Yeo showed a knack as a tactician during those series, too, making plenty of adjustments to his front lines that paid off against a pair of opponents in the Avalanche and Blackhawks that boast a lot of fast, skilled forwards.
“The line switches, that’s something I tried to make a conscious effort of at the start of the year, not only for me to grow as a coach but also for our team to get more used to it,” Yeo said, adding: “But it’s always the players that make you look smart.”
Yeo said he didn’t feel any more pressure to win this season than in his first one. He also pondered a question about when he felt the Wild truly clicked in the last few months before punting on the answer.
“It never really gets to that point,” he said, laughing. “I wish it did.”