In the days and weeks leading up to the firing of Mike Yeo as head coach of the Minnesota Wild, many wondered who to point the finger at for the team’s many failures. Was it Yeo’s fault for the team’s woes, or was it the players who were at fault for the epic slide that put the team out of playoff contention? After Wild’s February 13th loss to the Boston Bruins GM Chuck Fletcher and owner Craig Leipold pointed their fingers squarely at Mike Yeo.
Enter John Torchetti as Interim Head Coach to replace Yeo. As coach of the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Iowa, Torch was familiar with the players and had taught many of them the basics of professional game. Still there was an initial reservation by the fan base that the players were the issue, and that Torch would simply be the man who was to stand behind the bench to finish a disappointing season.
As we all know quite the opposite has happened. The Wild are back in the playoff driver’s seat and are looking like the hottest team in the NHL right now with five straight wins after Saturday’s win in Denver. With no blockbuster trades at the deadline this is almost exactly the same team, so how has Torch gotten the same group that was under Yeo to turnaround and play the game we all knew they could?
The Competing Part
From day one Torchetti has stressed the importance of taking the game and chopping it up into battles. He spent much of his time in the 24 hours leading up to his debut game against the Canucks talking to each player individually. He wanted to let them know what he wanted each and every one of them to do to make the team better.
His main message to the members of the Wild was to compete, to win the battles for the puck and for space. He explained that lazy play like stick checking and lack of two-way play would no longer be tolerated. Torch wanted to make the players know his keys to winning were about “the competing part”, and being “mentally tough”, and that’s what he expects night in and night out from the Wild.
Every Player is Accountable
Torchetti like any other great leader or coach has taken the time to outline and reinforce his expectations for the team every chance he can. With those expectations Torch has made it clear that there are consequences for not living up to those expectations. Like many great coaches before him he has shown the team that the right to be in the lineup is something that is earned.
The benching of Thomas Vanek and Jason Zucker may have seemed like a bold move to many, but not to Torchetti. As he’s explained to Michael Russo of the Star Tribune in response to Vanek’s benching prior to the Carolina game “We put the lineup in that we feel is going to win the game.” To Torch it isn’t about how a player is able to play, it’s about how a player is actually playing and the effort they are giving.
Zach Parise until the last two games was having a ghastly time getting on the scoresheet. Still, the reason he was never benched was because of his effort. On Parise, Torch said after Saturday night’s contest against the Avs: “He’s our best competitor” and “he’s been like that for a while now and now the pucks are going in”. He trusted in Zach’s effort and knew that his game was helping not hurting the team, even if it didn’t equate to results on the scoresheet.
Torch has not seen that same effort from Vanek and Zucker, and has decided to challenge them to find it. Before Saturday’s game, when asked why Zucker was a healthy scratch for the fourth time in eight games Torch was quoted by Chad Graff of the Pionner Press as saying six times “Two-way game”. He expects Zucker to play both sides of the puck and has shown him that if he doesn’t, he doesn’t get to play.
Jason Zucker a healthy scratch for the fourth time in eight games. Why? "Two-way game," Torchetti said six times when asked six questions.
— Chad Graff (@ChadGraff) March 26, 2016
Vanek has responded to his benching with eight shots in his two games since returning to the lineup. He may not have put the puck in the net, but he’s showing Torch that he’s willing to give the effort to earn his playing time.
Empower the Whole Team
A noticeable difference in the Wild under Torchetti is the rise of the young talent of the team. Players like Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, and Nino Niederreiter have taken their games to the next level and become more of a consistent force on the team. By coaching and developing them in the AHL, Torch knew their games and how to get the most out of their skills. That’s something that Mike Yeo struggled with.
Torchetti knew if he was to turn the Wild around he needed the whole team to engage. Before coaching his first game, Torch in his interview with Michael Russo explained: “We have to make sure moving forward that we do more team-building stuff and that structure-wise all 22 guys are part of it, and our younger guys have to start having a bigger voice in the locker room.” To Torch it’s all about having the entire team voice their concerns, formulate a game plan/way forward, and then go out in the game and execute.
Under Mike Yeo, it was widely believed that the young players felt like second class citizens. Under Torchetti, they have found their voice and roles on the team. No longer is it just about the Suters, Parises, and Koivus of the world, you see the strong voices also coming from the guys named Coyle, Haula, and Neiderreiter. That has led to a close culture where the team feels each loss and win as a team and not as individuals.
There’s no denying that what Torchetti has built in Minnesota is special. It comes from a very simple formula that many of us have seen before in sports, but rarely at the professional level. Play hard, give maximum effort, and keep the right attitude, and those players that do that will have a spot in the lineup. Don’t do what’s asked and they won’t play. It’s the Torchetti Way and it’s what has brought the Wild back from the brink of the most disappointing season in franchise history to sitting squarely in a playoff spot with six games left.
Danny Lambert has been covering the Minnesota Wild for some time now, and is back again as contributor to THW staff. A native Minnesotan he’s always had his eye on the State of Hockey and is proud to write and represent such a great market and fans. Follow him on Twitter at @dannylambert17