Mike Yeo is the right man to lead the Minnesota Wild in their quest for a Stanley Cup, at least in the minds of the franchise’s front office. On Saturday afternoon Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher announced that Yeo has agreed to a three-year contract extension that’s believed to be worth around $3 million.
For Wild fans, Yeo’s three-season tenure in Minnesota has been quite the roller coaster ride.
In 2011-12, his first season at the helm, the Wild came flying out of the gate, jumping out to a scorching 20-7-3 start. Minnesota sat atop the NHL standings as late as December 19th, but injuries and inexperience derailed their shocking start to the season. Minnesota skidded to finish the season with a 35-36-11 record, missing the postseason for the fourth time in five years.
The franchise made a big splash the following offseason by signing highly-sought free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to to massive 13-year contracts, thus raising Minnesota fans’ expectations astronomically for Yeo and his team. The team’s two big acquisitions made a noticeable impact in the lockout-shortened season, with Parise leading the team in goals (18) and points (38), while Suter recorded a team-high 28 assists.
But the team as a whole was mediocre in a lot of areas (scoring, power play, and penalty killing) failing to live up to the Stanley Cup-level expectations thrust upon it after its owner had spent over $200 million the previous offseason.
The Wild did get back into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference with a 26-19-3 record, but were soundly defeated in the first round by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in five games. After that early exit and somewhat disappointing season, Yeo found himself on the hot seat heading into the 2013-14 campaign.
This was somewhat unfair to Yeo, as Minnesota was a very young team that simply didn’t have the pieces – outside of Parise and Suter – to be a legitimate contender in the Western Conference. But in any event, he still entered this year likely coaching for his job, and there was a time in late December where it looked like Yeo wouldn’t see the end of the season.
The Wild hit a rough patch where they lost a franchise-record six-straight games to cap off an 18-game stretch in which they went 5-12-1.
As the calendar turned to 2014, it looked like Yeo’s time in Minnesota was drawing to an end. The team had plummeted to 10th in the Western Conference standings and the playoffs looked like a pipe dream. But the unflappable Yeo righted the ship, as his team went 12-2-1 over the next 15 games despite dealing with injuries to goaltender Josh Harding, forwards Parise and Mikko Koivu, and defenseman Jared Spurgeon.
Minnesota finished the season with a 43-27-12 record to clinch the top wild card spot in the Western Conference and a second consecutive postseason berth. The Wild rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the first round against the Colorado Avalanche, forcing a Game 7 which they won in overtime on a goal by Nino Niederreiter. It was the franchise’s first playoff series win since 2003.
Though they ended up falling in the second round to the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in six games, they still gave the ‘Hawks all they could handle and convinced the Wild’s front office that Yeo deserved a contract extension.
The decision to retain Yeo was absolutely in the best interest of the franchise moving forward, as both he and the team have shown significant signs of improvement over the past three seasons. Yeo, who is the NHL’s youngest coach at the age of 40, spent time as a coach in the AHL before make the jump to the pros, and it has paid dividends.
Minnesota is a very young team with plenty of raw talent, and Yeo has shown that he is certainly capable of developing those young players and tapping into their potential. In fact, many of them were key contributors to the team’s success in the playoffs. Niederreiter (21 years old), Spurgeon (24), Charlie Coyle (22), and Marco Scandella (24) were among the 16 different players who scored for the Wild in the postseason.
The defensive structure he implemented has been a success as well for Minnesota. The Wild gave up just 2.41 goals per game and allowed the fifth-fewest shots on goal in the league during the regular season. That came despite having five different goaltenders play between the pipes at one time or another.
As evidenced by the team’s January resurgence, Yeo also knows how to manage his club during a crisis, and several players have pointed to their coach as a big reason why they were able to weather the storm during December.
“I think he did a great job,” Ryan Suter said at the conclusion of the season. “There were times where the wheels could have come off and he kept it together. He was always level-headed. I think he did a great job and I think we’re going to have a bright future with him.”
If the front office can address the goaltender situation and sign forward Thomas Vanek (which has been reported to be a very real possibility) this offseason, Minnesota could have all the pieces to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender next season.
While there is definitely room for improvement in several areas (a big one is getting more shots on goal during power plays), Wild fans should have confidence that Yeo is the right man to lead the franchise forward.
And who knows, maybe he’ll be the guy that finally brings the Stanley Cup to the State of Hockey.