Hockey gone Wild!

Mikko Koivu, captain of the Minnesota Wild - picture by Cheryl Adams/HockeybroadThe Minnesota Wild haven't qualified for the playoffs since the 2007-08 season; but this year, they already have 41 points and are on pace for 115 points. Who would have foreseen the Minnesota Wild sitting atop the league nearly a third of the way into the season? Who is this new Wild team?

Minnesota began its team overhaul early in the summer, firing coach Todd Richards, and promoting Mike Yeo to head coach from their AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros. When you look at Yeo's record, it is no surprise that the Wild tagged him as new coach.

MikeYeo, 38, is the youngest coach in the NHL - and is not that far removed from playing hockey himself: he was a member of the Aeros 1994-1999 and captained the team to the Turner Cup championship in 1999. After a knee injury ended his playing career prematurely when playing for the Wilkes-Barres/Scranton Penguins (AHL), he became as assistant coach for the team. He moved to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005, and was part of the coaching staff when the Pens won the Cup under Dan Bylsma in 2009. Yeo became head coach of the Aeros in June of 2010. The Aeros had finished last in the Western Conference the year before he became coach; in 2011, Yeo led his team to the Calder Cup finals, where they lost to the Binghamton Senators.

But shaking up the organization didn't stop at the coaching change; some of the team's biggest names were allowed to walk as free agents, or traded - most notably, a couple of major trades went down between the Wild and the San Jose Sharks that resulted in Martin Havlat and popular defenseman Brent Burns going to San Jose, while Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley came to MN in return. Gone were Andrew Brunette, Jose Theodore, John Madden. Cam Barker was bought out of his contract. Some players were brought up from the Aeros.

Minnesota Wild - 2011 Draft - picture by Cheryl Adams/HockeyBroadMinnesota has been making some good Draft choices for several years; they have several players who've spent their careers in the Wild system, like Cal Clutterbuck, Justin Falk, Colton Gillies, and Clayton Stoner. (Burns had also been a career Wild player, til he was traded.) This year, their Draft included a few "home-grown" (Minnesota) players, such as first-round pick Zack Phillips. The Wild is young, and they're building for long-term depth.

While the Wild roster may not be studded with the kind of star power that a team like the Blackhawks or the Penguins enjoy, there is still plenty of talent in the ranks, led by team captain Mikko Koivu (all 7 NHL seasons with the Wild), and goaltender Niklas Backstrom (all 6 NHL seasons with the Wild). When Mike Yeo took the job, he knew he would have to get the players to buy into a new team culture, and where else would it start but with the captain? So Yeo started by getting on a plane to Finland to get to know Koivu and Backstrom, discussing his coaching philosophy, getting to know the players, and talk to them about the team. It was a smart and stellar move on Yeo's part. Yeo then connected with as many players as he could prior to training camp, be it by phone or in person.

The Wild took points in nearly every game they played in October, going 5-2-3 in their first 10 games. They've had two 5-game win streaks and are currently on a 6-game win streak, and stand at 41 points with a 19-7-3 record.

If you haven't watched the Wild this season, you're missing a treat. Gone is the sluggish, boring play of past seasons. This is a young, re-energized team that has bought wholesale into their new coach's system. Three of the team's top scorers got shipped out of Minnesota this summer, but you wouldn't notice. Scoring is spread out across the team, with nearly every player on the team having points by now.

Yeo's system emphasizes staying focused on what needs to be done in order to win. His team is about pressure, getting the puck deep, forcing turnovers, outworking the opponent. If you grind away long enough, you can wear the opponents out. It's working, too; when it doesn't, it's because the team has strayed from the formula.

After a 5-2 loss late in November, Yeo stated, “We have to understand how we have to execute, how we have to play as a team. We have to go into games understanding that’s who we are. That’s Minnesota Wild hockey right there. That’s what we do. We do it night in and night out. We do it regardless of the score. We do it regardless of who we play against.”

There are undoubtedly other teams in the league that could look at Yeo's Wild (and similarly, at the Florida Panthers under Kevin Dineen), and learn from the changes that have gone on in Minnesota. The players are committed not only to their coach and the team, but to each other, and it shows. They're showing they can win in different ways, including coming from behind. They've proven they can win behind three different goalies. While they could still produce more offensively, they're letting in the third-lowest GAA, just 2.14, and they are playing consistent defense.

After October, it might have been a fluke. But at a third of the way into the season, Minnesota is showing that they have changed, and there will be a new playoff contender this spring.

Current team stats (12/9/11):

League rank: 1st (41 pts/19-7-3)
Western conference: 1st
PP - 14.8% (23rd)
PK - 84.9% (11th)
Goals scored/game - 2.45 (24th)
Goals allowed/game - 2.14 (3rd)