On December 10, 2011, the Minnesota Wild were 20-7-3 coming off of a 4-1 win over the Phoenix Coyotes in Glendale. It was the team’s seventh straight win, five of which had come on the road, and first-year head coach Mike Yeo’s team had the best record in the league.
The team had replaced Todd Richards, who had taken over for longtime coach Jacques Lemaire, in the offseason, and the move looked ingenious at the time. It looked like Yeo, a former Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach, had brought excitement back to a deflating franchise.
The Wild would lose to the Jets in Winnipeg the next night, however, beginning an eight-game losing streak. They would win only one more game in December and finish the year 35-36-11, missing the playoffs.
Owner Craig Leipold knew that his newly inherited team’s honeymoon period was over and that people were not going to come in droves to see a subpar hockey team take the ice every night, so he went out and brought in hometown star forward Zach Parise and Wisconsin-born defenseman Ryan Suter.
He also retained Yeo.
It’s hard not to see last year as a step forward. The Wild made the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season before being eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Parise and Suter played well, as did emerging stars like Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin and Jason Zucker.
At the same time, the team put itself in a predicament by limping down the stretch and eventually facing a do-or-die scenario against the Colorado Avalanche in Denver. It was increasingly painful because the team had a seven-game win streak in March and was poised to potentially win the division, or at least get a favorable matchup in the playoffs, but faltered down the stretch—losing nine games in April, including blowouts against the lowly Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers.
Suddenly, Yeo’s job didn’t look all so secure. He had two superstars and plenty of young talent, but it looked like they petered out at the end of the brutal 48-game lockout schedule. Instead of contending with the Vancouver Canucks in an otherwise weak division and trying to get a favorable matchup in the Stanley Cup playoffs, they had to play the No. 1-seeded Blackhawks.
Yeo will stay off the hot seat this year if he gets his team into the playoffs, of course, but it is not an easy task. The new division features two bona fide contenders, the Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues, as well as four teams with plenty of young talent—the Avalanche, Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators.
Yeo will be evaluated not only by how well his team matches up against the Hawks and Blues, but also how well his young players develop. It is possible that he is retained even if the team does not make the playoffs, but it seems unlikely. The Wild want to keep their core intact and most young players like a familiar voice; at the same time, however, Minnesota needs to keep advancing, especially with Parise, Koivu and Suter wearing a green sweater.
Next season will be interesting for everybody, and Yeo knows he’s going to hear it if the team doesn’t get off to a good start in 2013-14.
Matching Up Against the Blackhawks and Blues
Chicago and St. Louis are expected to be the best teams in this division.
The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last year, their second in the past four years, and they have kept the team together since that breakout campaign in 2010. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook and Co. remain in the Windy City and, as everyone in Minnesota knows, dispatched the Wild in five games last year.
They struggled mightily after the lockout but won the old Central Division two years ago and have been eliminated by the Los Angeles Kings the past two years. The current incarnation lacks many superstars like Chicago, L.A. or Boston—three recent champions—but Ken Hitchcock has a system that allows them to play a sound team game. That and, well, David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Alex Pietrangelo are no scrubs either.
While Minnesota may have a lot of young players who are going to be expected to play big minutes, there is an expectation that they will compete for the division crown with St. Louis and Chicago. Yeo and his staff cannot sit back on a “we’re young” excuse when his top line consists of Parise, Koivu and Jason Pominville—three players in their prime.
He also has two experienced defensemen in Ryan Suter and Keith Ballard who have had their fair share of success in the league.
Yeo will be judged on how well his veterans match up against Kane, Toews and Seabrook out in Chicago and Backes, Oshie and Pietrangelo in St. Louis. The expectation is that his top players should produce, or defend, against the best of the best.
If Parise, Koivu and Pominville fail to connect or Suter and Ballard do not do their thing when they are out on the ice, it’ll ultimately fall on Yeo’s shoulders to fix it.
After all, everyone knows the old maxim: You can’t fire all the players, so you fire the coach.
Minnesota’s Youth Have to Shine
Many of the teams in the new Central Division have green talent and inevitably people will compare them with Minnesota’s young stars—especially those receiving significant minutes. Even with veterans like Parise, Koivu, Pominville and Suter on the team, four players in their early 20s—Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker and Jonas Brodin—are going to have to be impact players if the Wild are going to compete in the new division.
Brodin has already proved he’s a top-of-the-line defenseman and Coyle and Zucker had strong years last season, but Granlund didn’t live up to the hype last year and the Islanders stuffed Niederreiter in the minors.
Coyle, Granlund and Niederreiter could all easily see time on the second line, while Zucker will likely find himself on the third. This is all likely to change throughout the year, however, as Yeo plans to change up the lines frequently. This, of course, puts the onus of his young player’s success on his shoulders.
There are a lot of different coaches and trainers who are responsible for turning a blue-chip prospect into a bona fide NHL player, and if the Wild’s best young players are overwhelmed, especially by some of the younger teams in the division, it will reflect poorly on Yeo and his staff.
Pressure to Make a Playoff Run
While the Blackhawks and Blues are the most proven teams in the division, any of the other four teams could become a dark-horse threat next season.
Colorado has stars of its own, make no mistake about that, but they are very young and have yet to have the success of Chicago’s Kane or Toews, who are in their mid-20s.
The Avalanche are led by captain Gabriel Landeskog, who is 20, and their other star, Matt Duchene, is 22. Jamie McGinn, Ryan O’Reilly and Erik Johnson are all 25 or under. Eighteen-year-old rookie Nathan MacKinnon, who was selected first overall, could see some serious playing time next year.
Winnipeg is a little more experienced. Its captain, Andrew Ladd, is 27, but two of the biggest stars, Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian, are 22 and 23, respectively. The Jets do have some older impact players, however, like Michael Frolik, 25, Devin Setoguchi, 26, Blake Wheeler, 27, Dustin Byfuglien, 28, and Mark Stuart, 29.
Both of these teams have a chance to make significant improvements this year.
Dallas has some of the most veteran players in the division. Ray Whitney is 41, Stephane Robidas is 36 and Erik Cole is 34. Jamie Benn, who was recently named captain, is 24, and the team recently traded for Tyler Seguin, 21, a former Boston Bruin.
The Stars have always been a perplexing team. Amidst bankruptcy issues, the team never really burnt it down and rebuilt. Instead, the Stars have maintained a middle-of-the-pack squad that, for the past few years, is always on the outside looking in when the playoff bubble pops.
Even though there is a lot of experience on this team, you have to believe that it is looking at Benn and Seguin to snap them out of this funk, otherwise it wouldn’t have named Benn captain and engaged in a blockbuster deal involving Loui Eriksson for Seguin.
Finally, the Nashville Predators are the Oakland A’s of hockey: They play in a small market and often trade away their best players, only to have a new crop come in and dominate the next year.
The team is led by captain Shea Weber, of course, and has a familiar face in veteran Matt Cullen, but like almost every other Predators team in recent memory, it will be very young. Seth Jones, 18, and Filip Forsberg, 19, could see playing time this year and other lesser-known players in their mid-20s will be expected to score by committee.
Ultimately, it is Barry Trotz’s genius that keeps this team going.
The Wild are familiar with how good the Vancouver Canucks are and how much young talent the Edmonton Oilers have from their time in the old Northwest Division. The three California teams—the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks—all are capable of qualifying for the playoffs as well.
Yeo’s job is not going to be easy this year. He will have to juggle giving his veterans enough playing time without hampering the development of his younger players. Additionally, there is a lot of star power with Parise, Suter, Koivu and Pominville, but the team is also going to be expecting a lot out of Brodin, Coyle, Zucker, Granlund and Niederreiter.
There are a lot of things that he cannot control that could end up putting him on the hot seat. The Central Division is tough. The Pacific isn’t too shabby either. His second-year players could have sophomore slumps. His stars could get injured.
Yeo and his staff need to focus on finding the right chemistry on each line, developing the young players and putting his best players in a situation to succeed.
He could miss the playoffs and keep his job; the team probably wants a long-term coach for its young players, but it seems unlikely that would happen. The Wild brought in Parise and Suter to win championships.
The team is built to succeed now and in the long term. This places a lot of pressure on Yeo, and he knows how volatile hockey fans can be. Two years ago, his team was one of the best coming out of the gates and didn’t make the playoffs. Last year, it made two big signings, came close to taking the division and then ended up as a No. 8 seed.
Yeo has to get off to a good start and finish strong in 2013-14. His job likely depends on it.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.