COMMENTARY | At the beginning of the New Year, it looked like Mike Yeo was going to be relieved of his duties as head coach of the Minnesota Wild.
The team had lost six-straight games, including losses to the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Winnipeg Jets, and New York Islanders, and it had gotten to the point where Yeo was no longer speaking to his team after games anymore.
He had run out of answers.
It is one thing for a coach give a veteran team the silent treatment after games, but the Wild, at their core, are a young team. Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, and Jonas Brodin -- all barely 20 years of age -- need instruction, encouragement, and above all else, leadership from their coach. Not only are players like Niederreiter, Coyle, Granlund, Zucker, and Brodin playing significant minutes, especially with Minnesota's plethora of injuries (Jared Spurgeon and Josh Harding are also out), but there are also rookie players like Justin Fontaine and Eric Haula that are getting ice time. These aren't guys that can sit in a room and figure it out on their own; they don't have enough NHL experience. They need a coach that can guide them in their nascent professional hockey careers.
It was a sign of trouble when Yeo stopped talking to his team after games. Everyone knew it: Yeo was on the hot seat. While he had yet to be fired, local columnists were speculating on who the next coach would be and Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher was not giving his coach, who is on the last year of his contract, any word of support.
The Wild turned it around in January, winning their first four games. Following a win over the Chicago Blackhawks on January 23, the team had only lost to the upstart Colorado Avalanche (4-2) and the Ottawa Senators (3-0) at home and the Dallas Stars on the road (4-0).
While winning is always nice, there are a few significant victories in the bunch: a 5-3 win against the Washington Capitals in St. Paul, a 2-1 shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings in Southern California, a 4-1 win over the Phoenix Coyotes on the road, and a 2-1 win against the Chicago Blackhawks at the X. Keep in mind, Parise just returned for the game against Chicago, and Koivu, Harding, and Spurgeon were still out, but Yeo still has his young, talented players and got to crush a few easy opponents while sitting on the hot seat.
While losses to Colorado and Ottawa are concerning, it's the 4-0 shutout in Dallas that should set off alarm bells. This is a mediocre Stars team that, like its recent predecessors, is probably going to finish on the outside of the playoff bubble. There's talent there, though not nearly what Minnesota has even with all the Wild's injuries. It also came on the road a day after Minnesota was arguably outplayed and relied on an overtime goal from an oft-scratched defenseman to get the win.
The Chicago win was impressive, make no doubt about that, and Darcy Kuemper, a 23-year-old sixth-round pick, is establishing himself in net after a rocky start to the season, but it's only worth something if it leads to Minnesota's success on the road. The San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, and Colorado Avalanche are formidable opponents, especially in their own buildings, and Minnesota has to assure that the lowly Calgary Flames are simply a snack at the end of their journey.
A loss in San Jose cannot bleed into the game against Anaheim. On the other hand, a win over the Sharks cannot be followed up by a poor performance against the Ducks. Yeo has to keep this team even-keeled. He has to ensure that they come out of the locker room ready to score the first goal, apply pressure on the forecheck, and outskate their opponents right off the bat.
The onus is on the players as well, of course, but leadership comes from the top. Yeo has to set the tone; he has to demand energetic play. He needs more than 2.3 goals per game (27th in the league) out of his talented team. He needs the power play to score at more than a 17.6 percent clip (21st) and the penalty kill to convert at a higher rate (79.3 percent, 23rd). Above all else, he needs to find answers. He needs to keep talking.
Or the Wild should find someone that will.
Note: The original posting of this article stated that Mike Yeo has stopped talking to his team. It should be noted that this was only after certain games. I apologize for being unclear. Information on this topic can be found in two Star Tribune articles I previously sited in the article.
Tom Schreier writes about the Twins, Wild, and Wolves for Yahoo Contributor Network. He previously covered Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and can be heard on 105 The Ticket in the Twin Cities. Followed him on Twitter @tschreier3.
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