Changing a team's on-ice philosophy doesn't happen easily.
It doesn't happen in a game, not over a ten game span, sometimes it takes more than a season. And that's what we're seeing right now with the Wild.
When Mike Yeo arrived to Minnesota, he inherited a mediocre team that played probably the most horribly boring and uninteresting style of hockey known to man. Since taking over as a head coach, Yeo has managed to change the culture of the team, piece by piece. But he's not anywhere near where he wants to be in the process.
So who's to blame? Yeo? Chuck Fletcher? The players? The easy answer is "all of them", but it's also the right answer.
In his first season as a head coach, the Wild made moves during the summer to add Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley to the roster. The vision that Fletcher had was one where the Wild would dramatically shift its style of play to much more aggressive, fast and offensive minded.
(Note: "offensive minded" = A slight shift to a more aggressive forecheck and trying to get the puck out of the D-zone with one quick pass after the opponent has turned the puck over. Every single team in the NHL plays the game with the same basic mindset: Defense first. It's what you do with the puck, and how quickly you do it once you get the damn thing that makes the difference in most cases.)
Did Yeo and Fletcher succeed in their mission during the 2011-2012 season? If you ask me, Yeo got the most out of that roster. His 1st line center played 55 games, some of them hurt, and Dany Heatley was the most prolific scorer on that team with 53 points in 82 games. Kyle Brodziak was a close second with 43 points.
So yeah, the style of play didn't really change that much, but how could it? With the group of players that Yeo had, that was pretty much the best shot at a Play-Off spot to be honest. Ugly grind for 82 games, and they were on top of the league at one point. When Koivu got hurt and Marek Zidlicky begun his adventures all over the ice in a Wild sweater, the wheels dropped off and the Wild were one goddamn zeppelin on fire.
The first season is on Fletcher, pretty much. He's responsible for giving Yeo the players to succeed, and there ain't a coach in today's NHL that could've taken that Wild team to the Play-Offs.
Fletcher's done a pretty good job drafting for the Wild ever since he took the job, but he's the guy that's responsible for last season as well. During Yeo's first season with the Wild, Marco Scandella played 63 games. Clayton Stoner (more on him/Dumba tomorrow) and Nate Prosser played 51. Justin Falk played 47, and Zidlicky 41 games. Look at those names and numbers. Look at them. Then, the only reliable guy at the back, Nick Schultz, got traded and what the Wild got was Tom Gilbert. This is all on Fletcher.
And it's not like this came as a surprise to anyone. The Wild being really weak at the back, I mean. For Yeo to be able to really change the way this team plays, he needs a better defensive core. Now he has a great first pair, but after that you can't really trust the other two pairings, especially when Stoner is playing. The defensemen are the foundation on which to build a faster, more aggressive style of play. You need to force turnovers and get the puck up ice with one pass after you get it? With Ryan Suter or Jonas Brodin you are able to do that. With the rest of the guys? Jared Spurgeon maybe, after that it really is a pipe dream.
This is the biggest reason why the St. Louis Blues are a force, and will be one of the best teams during the regular season. Their six best defensemen form the best and most complete three pairings in the NHL if you ask me. And that's huge, on both sides of the puck.
Back to Yeo. I'm not giving him too much heat from last year. Even with the additions of Zach Parise and Suter, the whole season was just a bunch of compromises. With the amount of changes in the line up, the product on the ice changed from good to occasionally-great to disappointing to "what are they doing?", and none of those phases really should've surprised anyone. Too many changes, too little time to make them really work.
But what about this season? How much time does Yeo have before he finds himself without a job?
It depends. If Fletcher doesn't see the fact that he's mostly responsible for the defensive core being what it is, and is still expecting immediate success? The chances are he finds himself out of the organization pretty quickly unless the players get a firm grasp of what Yeo wants them to do differently in certain situations. Also, scoring on your chances helps. Just putting that out there. Having possession of the puck and creating scoring opportunities gets you nowhere if you don't actually score.
There are signs of change when you watch the Wild play. They try to get the puck in the offensive zone by controlling it, whether it be just by skating it in or by passing it in. But none of that will be possible if the defensemen can't get the opposing forwards to turn the puck over relatively soon after they've entered the Wild zone, and then get it to their own forwards in the neutral zone with one, at max. two quick passes.
The Wild are also trying to forecheck more aggressively, but Coyle's injury hurts their forecheck because now the 2nd line isn't as good at that particular part of the game. There are signs of potentially major improvements in the level of play for the whole team, but it's still a work in progress.
The players are responsible for the current situation. Yeo is responsible. Fletcher is responsible. The thing is, while Yeo's job is to put the players in a position to succeed, Fletcher hasn't done the same thing for Yeo. Would another coach be better for the Wild? I don't know, probably. Should Yeo be fired? Not yet. Who's to blame if he gets fired? I got to go with Fletcher here.