Minnesota Wild Dominating the NHL with Defense, Youth, and Coach Mike Yeo

Joe M.Correspondent IIDecember 11, 2011

Former Sharks Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi may have got all the headlines this off-season when savvy Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher robbed the San Jose organization of these players without so much as brandishing a mask.

However, the real prize was the elevation of former Houston Aeros head coach Mike Yeo of the American Hockey League. Yeo (Yo), off the Pittsburgh Penguins championship-coaching tree, had been an assistant for five years with the second best run organization—behind only the Detroit Red Wings, in my opinion—so he obviously learned from the best.

For years Minnesota Wild fans heard how the talent level down in Houston was barren and how guys like Colton Gillies, Warren Peters, Nate Prosser, Robbie Earl and Clayton Stoner, as examples, either had potential that wasn’t being fully utilized, or in some cases, had little or no talent at all. In other cases, this regression was met by injuries. Any way you slice it, Minnesota had no pipeline through which to direct players to the NHL, no focus and no hope.

The system had no top-six forwards and no budding superstars, save for 2009 first-round pick Mikael Granlund, who, while lighting up the Finnish Elite league as one of the top players internationally, still hasn’t signed his entry level contract.

Before these two massive trades this summer (that I touched on in this prior article) with the Sharks, Minnesota’s minor league system was ranked No. 29. After the trades and in addition to several recent stellar drafts—including three second round picks in 2010 (Brett Bulmer, Jason Zucker and Johan Larrson)—for the first time ever in their short history, the Wild had some optimism.

But this article isn’t about those players or those draft picks, it is about Coach Mike Yeo’s philosophy and how this attitude, which began in Houston the year before, had resonated all the way up to the big club—and its paying major dividends.


Wild Much Better Than Anyone Expected

For those of us who follow the team, we saw no way the team wouldn’t be improved after the aforementioned Heatley and Setoguchi trades. I preseason picked the team to finish 2nd in the

Northwest Division, but more importantly, make the playoffs for the first time in three years and get the No. 5 seed.

Currently, the Wild—riding an eight game road-winning streak and seven game overall—sit at 20-7-3, alone at the top of the entire league with 43 points in just 30 games. Better than the Penguins (38), better than the Red Wings (37), better than the Blackhawks (38) and better than the Canucks (37). What’s more, consider that the Wild, fresh off beating the Quebec—I mean Phoenix Coyotes—now boast a 17-4-0 record in their past 21 games. Home, road, overtime, it doesn’t matter, but when you dub yourself The State of Hockey as the Wild do, its high time they back up the claim.

Consider that The Hockey News picked the Wild to finish 11th in the Western Conference, while NHL Face-off Magazine predicted they’d finish 13th. How embarrassing, especially when you consider

the latter was all over Colorado claiming they’d finish second in the division, when any onlooker can tell you they consist of Matt Duchene and a bunch of stiffs.

I could get into the whole idiotic trade of shipping a sure top-five lottery pick, along with a 2nd rounder, to Washington for talented but barely tested Seymon Varlamov, but what’s the point? What’s done is done. What exactly did they expect to happen? What moves were they expecting that would have really wow-ed them since blogs, boards, media and friends I talked to all were shocked at how much talent the team had acquired in such a short time? Most Minnesota fans had to see this coming, maybe not this fast, but at least knew good things were on the horizon if all the pieces fell into place.


Wild Win With Defense

The first way the Wild are winning is with defense. The old saying, “offense wins games, defense wins championships” holds true once again. As long as you keep your opponent close, you are always in games and give yourself a chance to win. This is evident by Yeo’s use of the trap, which Wild fan’s loved to hate with former Wild godfather Jacques Lemaire, the franchise’s inaugural coach.

Wild fans hate it because like the NFL’s West Coast Offense, its use is boring but effective. Scoring isn’t done in a flurry, but at optimum times. To help institute this, Yeo introduced two clones on defense: Greg Zanon, a veteran holdover and Apple Valley, Minnesota native, Mike Lundin, who in his first year from Tampa Bay is basically the same player and known for blocking shots (i.e. preventing goals).

Next, the emergence of kids Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner and Marco Scandella. Spurgeon (two goals, nine assists), is just 22 years old and was acquired in a trade with the New York Islanders. What makes him so good? Not only his puck handling (he doesn’t turn the puck over, primarily in his own end of the ice, unlike predecessor Brett Burns who was traded in the Setoguchi deal), but he’s often right in the middle of the action, despite his small stature.

Scandella and Spurgeon excelled for Yeo down in Houston, which is likely why they find themselves with the parent club today. Its pretty obvious what Yeo is doing: he’s taking his favorites and his best players from Houston and pushing them just enough in Minnesota. Having already familiarized himself with them and the system, he knows exactly who and how much effort he can get out of everyone. Those that bought in at Houston are making easier and more seamless transitions.

Some of you are probably asking, “Why does Houston matter? Who gives a crap?” Aside from learning fundamentals, this club that fans were told over and over had no talent surprisingly came within two wins of the Calder Cup trophy last spring. That began to open some eyes and ultimately led the Wild to roll the dice on a talented young 37-year-old coach they somehow stole from the Penguins organization just a year before.

At the risk of losing him very soon in the future to another organization, as was the general consensus, rather than hire a proven coach like Ken Hitchcock or Craig McTavish, owner Craig Leipold and Fletcher gutted it out and went with the hot hand in their own backyard in Yeo and wow, has it ever worked!

Wild Win With Hitting

I could have written “Wild win with toughness,” but that would imply a Tony Twist like enforcer that the Wild do not have. Their closest resemblance is that of the careless Brad Staubitz, who opened the season on suspension for a preseason skirmish with Columbus.

No, what I mean is the Wild win with cross-checkers like Cal Clutterbuck—who routinely leads the league in hits—as well as a small, largely ignored, early summer trade for Philadelphia Flyers Right Wing Darrel Powe (Pow), who basically does the same thing. Do you see what Yeo and the Wild are doing as a formula for success? They are pairing similar teammates together who feed off of and emulate one another's skills, creating depth and comradery.

While the popular Clutterbuck hasn’t been the surprising scorer he was last year, (19G) Powe (three goals, three assists) already has proven valuable as an unexpected offensive option. I could go on about other cast-off diamonds in the rough such as former Penguin Nick Johnson (four goals, eight assists), but I think its pretty obvious how that waiver-wire acquisition found his way onto the club. Yeo is the catalyst, Yeo is the key and Yeo is the constant correlation.

The more I read about him, the more I can’t help but like him. I just figured there must be some sort of learning curve or grace period, but apparently I was wrong.


Wild Win With Balanced Scoring

It’s getting difficult to remember the last time the Wild lost, or the opponent. I know it was 5-2 at home, but off the top of my head I couldn’t tell you who it was.

Despite the flashy acquisitions from San Jose, neither Heatley nor Setoguchi has done much. While the latter is currently injured, I have no doubt Heatley’s numbers will be there at the end of the year. Instead the Wild have done it with a career years from free-agent-to-be third-line center Kyle Brodziak, steady but reliable captain Mikko Koivu, Virginia, Minnesota native Matt Cullen—whose having a nice bounce-back year after a difficult homecoming last season—Johnson and Pierre Marc-Bouchard.

If you are looking for a Phil Kessel-like MVP candidate you aren’t going to find one. Brodziak leads the team with 10 goals, followed closely by Heatley with nine, and Cullen, Clutterbuck and Setoguchi with eight. If all players keep up their current pace, the team could have six 20-plus goal scorers. On any given night its "pick your poison" on who can, and probably will, beat you.

Finally, in its own separate mention, as no column could be complete without it. The net minding of formerly embattled starter Nicklas Backstrom, always promising Josh Harding—who is coming off an ACL tear that saw him lost for the entire season last year—and recent call up Matt Hackett, have all pushed the right buttons and contributed solidly in goal as the Wild are No. 3 in the NHL in GAA with 2.1.

The team is really going to have to try and keep unrestricted free agents Brodziak and Harding. While they likely won’t keep either, if it were up to me I’d hand the reigns to the younger and cheaper Harding and ship the expensive and inconsistent enigma, Backstrom, elsewhere while his stock is high.

I have no idea how long this run can go or how long it will last, but I do know Yeo makes sure the Wild bring it each and every night as teams start to catch on. If it wasn’t for the Boston Bruins 12-0-1 November, the Wild would surely have stolen all the headlines—and rightfully so. After the Wild conclude this season-long five game road trip in Winnipeg on Tuesday, it will be interesting to see how Minnesota fans greet them back home at the X (Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul).

After seeing their teams burned for an entire calendar year with literal last place finishes from the Twins to the Gophers, Wolves and Vikings, the Wild have the look of Minnesota’s other championship winning team, the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx. But Minnesota fans are an understandably skeptical bunch, having had hearts broken too many times in the past. My guess is you won’t see Xcel filled to capacity until the playoffs are more certain as many fans proceed with caution, but for now, all is well.

It could be the beginning of something, not just right now, but years down the road.

Information, statistics, and references from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Michael Russo's blogs, NHL Face-off Magazine, The Hockey News magazine, and ESPN.com contributed to the content of this article. Views and expressions are those of the writer alone.


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