By Stu Hackel
Far away from the glaring spotlight of expectation that will shine on high-profile first-time NHL head coaches Dale Hunter and Kirk Muller, a little-known former Penguins assistant is doing some pretty special things in his first crack at running a team.
Mike Yeo, the NHL’s youngest coach, has his Minnesota Wild tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for first place overall in Western Conference after a 3-1 win over Tampa Bay on Monday night. Yeo may be less celebrated than the two former NHL captains who were newly installed in Washington and Raleigh, but they’d be happy to have his level of achievement after their first 24 games.
Having just wrapped up a six-game homestand, the Wild are — along with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars — one of the NHL’s biggest surprises of the season’s first quarter. They were, in fact, alone at the top of the league last week, having won 10 of 12, before they dropped two straight to the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames.
The Wild seemed to get derailed from their game plan in those two outings, abandoning it after a couple of bad bounces. That second loss on Sunday night, to the visiting Flames, prompted Yeo to say, “The good news is I don’t think we can play any worse than that. That’s something to fall back on.”
The reason for the flop, he said, was that the Wild got caught up thinking about winning and not about what they had to do to win. It’s a subtle difference, but it makes all the difference in Yeo’s view of things because that’s what gets the Wild away from their system.
“We have to understand how we have to execute, how we have to play as a team,” Yeo said postgame on Sunday (video). “We have to go into games understanding that’s who we are. That’s Minnesota Wild hockey right there. That’s what we do. We do it night in and night out. We do it regardless of the score. We do it regardless of who we play against.”
You might think that sounds an awful lot like how Jacques Lemaire coached the Wild (and the Devils), and it does to the extent that both Lemaire and Yeo preach sticking with the system in all circumstances. Both also produced good defensive records and the Wild rank fourth in the NHL in goals allowed per game (2.17). But you’d be wrong to equate the substance of the two coaches’ systems.
Under Lemaire’s trapping system, his team fell back and passively defended, forcing turnovers in the neutral zone and then counterattacking. For Yeo, it’s all about getting the puck deep, behind opposing defenders and outworking them, keeping it in their end, grinding them down, forcing turnovers in the offensive zone and capitalizing. If you stick with it long enough, Yeo preaches, you’ll get rewarded. Your opponent will cough it up eventually if you keep the pressure on.
Monday’s game provided some perfect examples. Trailing 1-0 and killing a penalty, the Wild’s Cal Clutterbuck scored this shorthanded goal to tie it when Tampa Bay’s Eric Brewer mishandled the puck:
It was the turning point of the game. The key here is not that Mikko Koivu gathers in the loose puck or that Clutterbuck makes a nice move in front of Lightning goalie Mathieu Garon; it’s Clutterback chasing Brewer behind the net at the start of the sequence and pressuring him into the misplay. It’s a bold move for a penalty-killer to chase the team with the extra man behind the net in the offensive zone, but it worked here. Clutterbuck, who epitomizes the way Yeo wants his team to play, has found more of an offensive dimension this season. He’s on pace to break 20 goals for the first time.
The game-winner — a terrific one-timer by Pierre Marc Bouchard — resulted from turnovers as well.
Yeo no doubt has some sophisticated forechecking patterns, but they work best when executed all game every game. “When you prepare that way, then you’re able to deal with the ups and downs of the game,” Yeo said on Sunday. “You actually feel good about what you’re doing shift after shift. You’re doing the right things. You’re playing the right way.”
Give Yeo credit for not just installing a system and getting his guys to buy in, but also making needed adjustments. In a battle of systems against Tampa Bay’s 1-3-1, he had his players shoot the puck hard around the boards, rimming it so that the one Tampa Bay player stationed back for soft chip-ins was forced to go deep in his own zone to retrieve it. That allowed the Wild time to penetrate the offensive zone and go to work on the forecheck.
Yeo also mixed up his top two lines for Monday’s game after the two straight losses, moving Clutterbuck beside Koivu and Dany Heatley and shifting Devin Setoguchi, Heatley’s former San Jose teammate, off that line to skate with Bouchard and center Matt Cullen.
Yeo also deploys an effective checking line of Darroll Powe, Kyle Brodziak and Nick Johnson, and they kept the Lightning’s top threesome of Brett Connolly, Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis off the scoreboard. Big Vinny and Little Marty were both minus-three for the night.
It doesn’t hurt to have two good goalies, and in Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, the Wild have two who have stopped over 93 percent of the shots they’ve faced. The veteran Backstrom had an uncharacteristically weak outing against the Flames on Sunday, getting pulled after allowing three soft goals on eight shots. But Yeo had no hesitation coming right back with him a day later. “He’s been so good for us this year that he deserves the opportunity to bounce back after a game like that,” said the coach. “And what a bounceback game. He was terrific.” Backstrom stopped 32 of 33 shots, allowing only an early goal by Steven Stamkos (video). Unlike the previous two contests, the Wild didn’t abandon their system after that.
The most remarkable part of the Wild’s game may be the defense corps, a group that inspires you to go all Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as in “Who are those guys?” They have a role in Yeo’s system, too, keeping shooters to the outside and always pushing the play forward.
Trading Brent Burns left big questions on Minnesota’s blueline, and the Wild have also had a bunch of injuries to their defensemen early this season, including their biggest offensive force from the back end, Marek Zidlicky, who is out with a concussion. Only Nick Schultz and undersized Jared Spurgeon have played all the Wild’s games among the blueliners.
The injury situation has forced GM Chuck Fletcher to dip into the depth he’s built into the organization, but the Wild has gotten the job done with call-ups (Justin Falk, Nate Prosser and Kris Fredheim) and, when healthy, strong contributions from Clayton Stoner and rookie Marco Scandella. Both Greg Zanon and Mike Lundin returned for the Lightning game after extended absences, Lundin for the first time this season. The veteran of a four-year stint with Tampa Bay, Lundin figured he’d play more minutes for the team in his home state and took less to sign with the Wild as a free agent last summer. However, he hurt his back in training camp and finally made his Wild debut on Monday.
“I thought both guys were really good, considering the amount of time that they missed,” Yeo said afterward. “I thought both of them got stronger as they game went on. Both of them looked in control.”
And then Yeo paid Zanon and Lundin his highest compliment, saying, “Both had a good grasp of how we want to play the game.”