While the 2011-2012 NHL campaign might have been a tale of two seasons for the Minnesota Wild, the franchise has much to look forward to in the coming seasons.
Finishing second to last in the Northwest Division and twelfth overall in the Western Conference was definitely a shock to a team that was tops in the Western Conference by early December. However, if there was a silver lining to the way that the Wild’s 2011-2012 campaign ended, then it was the fact that various players had time to get acquainted to head coach Mike Yeo’s style. Gone are the days of Jacques Lemaire, Todd Richards, and the trap that made Minnesota hockey synonymous with low scoring and an overly defensive style of play.
While the Wild ended the season as the league’s worst offensive (even-strength) team, the pace of play under Mike Yeo was drastically different from previous Minnesota coaches. The Wild played a tremendous amount of games that were decided by one goal last season, but hockey fans should not confuse the new Minnesota Wild with the defensive teams of old. Even though the team stayed relatively quiet during the 2012 NHL Trade Deadline and NHL Entry Draft, a commitment to patience could soon reward Chuck Fletcher, Mike Yeo, and the Minnesota Wild organization.
The Changing of the Guard
Todd Richards has found a home in Columbus ever since his departure from the Minnesota Wild, but the coaching change was exactly what the Wild needed to kick-start the organization. Richards was not a bad coach for the Wild, but he could not guide the team to the playoffs and the defensive-minded schemes of the franchise seemed to be wearing out their welcome after experiencing so much success with them under Jacques Lemaire.
In the end, Todd Richards was not able to guide the Wild to a postseason berth and was replaced by a man that changed the way that Minnesota Wild hockey was played since the early 2000s. Before Minnesota came out of the gates with a surprise start to their 2011-2012 season, many of the Wild’s players spent their time before training camp with Elite Leadership Training’s J.B Spisso. Spisso helped to forge a unity between the Wild players and it was apparent during the early stages of the 2011-2012 season when the team was getting contributions from all four lines and playing a level of hockey that was being heralded by coaches, fans, players, and analysts alike.
While Richards and Lemaire both imparted their knowledge on the Minnesota players during their respective coaching stops in the frozen tundra, Yeo has managed to step outside of the box and bring about drastic change to Minnesota Wild hockey by stressing reliable two-way play. Not only did Yeo push his team physically throughout the 2011-2012 NHL season, the time spent with J.B Spisso also got the Minnesota players thinking on a different note mentally. The altered mentality helped the team come out to a 20-7-3 record by December 10, 2011 as the team seemed to be clicking on all cylinders. Even if the Wild were trailing games in the early parts of last year’s season, there was a feeling that the team would come through in the clutch.
Players such as Dany Heatley were acquired to bolster Minnesota’s scoring threat, but the Wild were getting the job done as a team. The burden of offensive production did not fall squarely on Mikko Koivu, Devin Setoguchi, Dany Heatley, or the other top six forwards for the Wild. Instead, the team would receive a different contribution from a different player on a nightly basis and the team grew as a cohesive unit as a result. Even though a long season and the injury bug took a devastating toll on the Wild as the team did a nosedive in the Western Conference standings, the players that will return to the Wild’s lineup for the upcoming season will already know just what will be demanded of them for the duration of 82 games.
Desperate Times Don’t Call for Desperate Measures
As the Wild continued their tailspin out of the Western Conference playoff picture, trade scenarios and talk about the team
acquiring a top-six forward were rampant. With Guillaume Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard missing significant time for Minnesota, the team was forced to rely on young players from its AHL affiliate in Houston. As the NHL season turned the corner into the New Year, things did not get better for the Wild as injuries kept stacking up on what seemed to be a weekly basis. Players such as Mikko Koivu, Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, Jarod Palmer, and many others missed time due to injury as the Wild struggled to replace the key cogs in their lineup.
As the 2012 NHL Trade Deadline loomed, many probably believed that the Wild would be a key player via the trade market, but GM Chuck Fletcher avoided dipping into his talent pool and got rid of some pieces that the team did not need. Greg Zanon, Marek Zidlicky, and Nick Schultz were all shipped off to different destinations as the Wild made it apparent that overpaying for a top-six forward was not their prerogative. The team could have also tried to acquire a top-four defenseman as the struggles of Minnesota’s defensive corps was not doing the team any justice. Even though Chuck Fletcher’s team was still teetering on a playoff spot during late February, the franchise’s dedication to not budge in the face of desperation illustrated that management was willing to wait before making a move that would set it back.
Just months before the Wild started their 2011-2012 NHL season, Chuck Fletcher traded star defenseman Brent Burns and received Charlie Coyle and Devin Setoguchi in return. The move did manage to have an adverse effect on the Wild when their defensive units struggled from the midway point of the season until its conclusion, but the trade also gave Minnesota some young talent that could help the team in the future.
More importantly, the decision to stay idle during the 2012 NHL Trade Deadline probably paid the biggest dividends for Chuck Fletcher and the Wild. Not only did Fletcher rid himself of some players that weren’t going to be in the team’s long-term future, he showed everyone that highly regarded players such as Brodin, Larsson, Zucker, Philips, Granlund, and Coyle wouldn’t be thrown into the trade mix just for the sake of possibly salvaging one season.
Remaining patient while your team falls from grace could be a challenging task for any General Manager in the NHL, but the Wild’s refusal to make a big splash during the most recent NHL Trade Deadline evidenced the value of Minnesota’s youth to the team’s future. Giving up on Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Justin Falk, and the rest of the Minnesota defense could have been easier done than said, but the d-men were not thrown to the curb in favor of a big deadline target. By showing his players that his franchise is committed to the future, Chuck Fletcher illustrated a blueprint for the Wild’s future and reinforced the belief that youth does have a place in Minnesota, as long as they prove their worth.
Will Patience Pay Off in the Tundra?
The 2012-2013 NHL Season will be an interesting one for the Wild as they will have quite a group of young players auditioning for roster spots during training camp. Guillaume Latendresse’s decision to not re-sign with the Wild will make the team a little bit less deeper on the offensive side of things, but the team will undoubtedly start their next campaign with a healthy Pierre-Marc Bouchard.
Six players (Brodin, Larsson, Zucker, Philips, Granlund, Coyle) will probably be given a chance to display their skill sets for Minnesota before the 2012-2013 NHL season starts and some will probably have a shot at an extended stay with the big club. Jason Zucker was already given a taste of the NHL as the Wild recalled him for a six game stay at the end of the 2011-2012 season, but fans will probably be interested to see what kind of impact Mikael Granlund can have on the team. After putting up 51 points in 45 games in the SM-liiga, there is no doubt that Granlund could be a game changer for the Wild, especially since the team already has a Finnish player (Captain Koivu) leading them into battle every night.
Koivu’s strong two-way play makes him the epitome of a player that fits perfectly into Mike Yeo’s system as the pivot is patient, selfless, and willing to do whatever is necessary to win. Guillaume Latendresse’s departure may put some added pressure on Minnesota’s youngsters if Chuck Fletcher decides to plug some of the team’s holes from within, but fans shouldn’t expect the GM or head coach to veer off course if things do not go as initially expected.
Setbacks and flaws should be expected going into the 2012-2013 NHL season, but the Wild present an interesting case to hockey fans. The team’s turbulent 2011-2012 season illustrated the effect that injuries could have to an NHL lineup, but it also evidenced what could happen when a team loses its identity. When things started to head south in Minnesota, many players tried to shoulder the workload for the Wild and the team’s unity crumbled as a result. By buying into Mike Yeo’s system at the beginning of the previous hockey season, the Wild were able to play as a group and not as individuals. Playing as a fortified unit allowed the team to overcome many adversities at the start of the season and there will likely be a fair amount of obstacles that the Wild will have to tackle once the upcoming NHL season begins. However, intangibles will always be intangibles and there is only so much that a team can do to prevent certain things from happening throughout the course of a long season.
This much is for certain, if the Wild want to qualify for the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, then the players must exude the same patience and dedication that individuals such as Chuck Fletcher have displayed when building a team. Mike Yeo’s system will require hard work from all 23 players for all 82 games of the NHL season, but the head coach does not employ a tough system that does not reward the players and the team. Mike Yeo has already proven that his team can play a strong and motivated game against tough opponents, but the only question left to be answered is if the team can sustain such a level of play for the duration of the 2012-2013 NHL season.