There comes a point in every young player’s life when his old entry-level deal expires and it’s time to negotiate a new one. The same is true for young coaches, too.
As a player, Mike Yeo spent four seasons with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves, scoring 54 goals and 47 assists for 101 points and 233 penalty minutes in 190 career regular season games. From there, he would make the jump to pro hockey as a rugged, undrafted left wing grinder and role player for the Houston Aeros, then of the International Hockey League. In five seasons with Houston, Yeo would compile 55 goals and 72 assists for 127 points and 511 penalty minutes in 317 career regular season games.
Yeo would eventually be brought into the Pittsburgh Penguins’ organization as a proven minor league veteran presence for the fledgling AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, scoring a goal and four assists in 19 games before suffering a career-ending knee injury. Little did he know that would be the start of an 11-year career with Pittsburgh as he would soon be offered an assistant coaching position under then-Baby Pens head coach Glenn Patrick. He also served in that capacity under current Canadiens’ head coach Michel Therrien, who replaced Patrick before taking Yeo with him when he would eventually be promoted to coach Pittsburgh in 2005.
Yeo continued his work with the Penguins under Dan Bylsma, helping coach the team to a Stanley Cup championship in the Spring of 2009. Upon conclusion of the 2009-10 season, Yeo left the Penguins to take a head coaching job with his old team in Houston. In his first and only season as the Aeros’ head coach, he led them all the way to the league finals after finishing the prior season dead last in the West. It certainly was an impressive accomplishment, and may have been what forced Fletcher’s hand in taking a chance on the man who would become the youngest bench boss in the league today.
When Mike Yeo was offered the job of Minnesota Wild bench boss in the Spring of 2011, the club was in a position where it could only look up from there. Todd Richards, the second head coach in team history, had taken the team nowhere, going a combined 77-71-16 and failing to make the playoffs in his first and only two seasons with the club. Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher had no choice but to fire Richards and find a coach that would yield results. So, with high profile names such as Craig MacTavish and Ken Hitchcock out there, he proceeded to hire another unproven rookie in Yeo, who had just taken the Wild’s farm team all the way to the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Finals.
It’s safe to say he made a good choice–maybe not the best available, but a good choice nonetheless. In fact, Fletcher looked downright brilliant after the Wild won a franchise record 11 games in November, 2011, and found themselves atop the league standings as late as midway through the month of December. However, big injuries to several key players caused the team to plummet faster than a falling anvil, enabling Minnesota to draft potential franchise top pairing defenseman Mathew Dumba with the seventh overall pick the next June.
The selection of Dumba was a major consolation prize, as he joined an ever growing group of blue chip talent in the team’s prospect pool. However, that wasn’t good enough by a long shot, and Fletcher proved it by signing the best available free agent forward, Zach Parise, and the best available free agent defenseman, Ryan Suter, to identical 13-year $98 Million deals on July 4th, 2012. Oh, what an Independence Day celebration there was that day in the State of Hockey.
The next season was the most anticipated season in team history outside of its inaugural campaign, but it was to be delayed for over three months as the owners and players squabbled over a new collective bargaining agreement. Without a full training camp and preseason schedule, both Parise and Suter struggled to adapt to Yeo’s system at first, but with the emergence of the Wild young guns–particularly Suter’s young 2013 All-Rookie Team protégé Jonas Brodin–were able to help lift the team to its first playoff run in five years. Minnesota would fall to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in five games, but it got a taste of success and only increased its appetite for success.
This season was different in St. Paul. Minnesota had proven vets in Parise, Suter, team captain Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak, rising young guns in Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Darcy Kuemper, Erik Haula and Brodin and a head coach on a mission in Yeo. Fans had spent the last two seasons hearing all about the “system” and “process” and how, if the team stuck with it, it would be successful.
That said, a five-game postseason cup of coffee wasn’t exactly what residents of the State of Hockey would call “success”. Yeo, of course, knew this, and quickly blew the fan base away with a brand of hockey that was decidedly un-Wild-like. For a team that has traditionally been known as a “boring, trap-style defensive team” from the old Jacques Lamaire days, Minnesota was suddenly a dominant, explosive, puck-moving, defensively sound, offensive-minded squad reminiscent of the team system incorporated in (where else) Pittsburgh. It brought the fans to their feet and earned the Wild their second playoff berth in as many seasons–this time, there was no sneaking in as Minnesota decisively claimed the top wild card spot in the West.
In their 13-game run, the Wild showed more heart and gave fans more hope for the future than arguably any other team in the league. Most of the veterans had a solid showing, especially considering Minnesota’s short lived run the year before. They would be overshadowed by the performance of the team’s youngsters, however. Kuemper–when healthy–was key in goal, while Granlund, Coyle, Niederreiter, Spurgeon, Scandella, Brodin, Justin Fontaine and Haula all played big roles, including Niederreiter’s history-making series-clinching goal in overtime of Game Seven of the Wild’s quarterfinal matchup with the division-winning Colorado Avalanche.
Missed chances and unlucky bounces helped eliminate Minnesota in six games against the defending champion Blackhawks, who arguably only decisively deserved to win just Game Two of the series. However, even in the jaws of defeat, the Wild’s future has never looked brighter, and it’s due in large part to the coaching of Yeo and his staff.
Today, Minnesota’s bench boss is sitting pretty with a shiny new three-year contract extension in his back pocket. Still, the heavy expectations are still there–if my math is correct, one round, plus two rounds the next season, means three rounds the season after that, right? No pressure.