After going on a 1-7 in their last stretch of road games, the Minnesota Wild were not in a good place. Out of the playoff picture at 9th place in the West, with most of the surrounding teams having games in hand, and Dallas creeping up on them. And they just lost their best player, who finally succumbed to a foot injury that had diminished his production. The hope for the Wild was that they'd come back home, where they'd been dominant all season, and right the ship there.
And that hope seemed reasonable, as the Wild jumped out to a three-goal lead against the New York Islanders. Beating a not-very-good team at home isn't exactly a statement win, but with the Wild clawing and scratching for two points somewhere- anywhere- in this playoff race, you'd take it.
But a funny thing happened on the way to starting to save the season. They didn't.
The Wild allowed 5 goals in 25 and a half minutes, and ended blowing their game 5-4. They didn't even net the loser point that would have kept Dallas (who still has two games in hand on the Wild) behind them in the standings. 10th. 10th in the Western Conference.
That's just great.
This season is slipping, which has been a familiar sight for Wild fans as of late. This happened two years ago, where a Cinderella team turned into an injured, AHL-level pumpkin. This happened last year, with the Wild turning an almost-certain playoff position into a nail-biting race that had to be won on the last day (and don't even get me started on that edmonton game).
This year? Their swoon over the last month or so has taken them from approximately a 75% chance of making the playoffs to a 7% chance emerging on top of the playoff bubble.
With all this happening, and the very ability of the Wild making the playoffs hanging in the balance, can Mike Yeo survive this slump with his job intact? Should he survive it?
Here's what we know:
- The Wild have been indisputably awful lately. Which is a complete and total shame, since they started the season playing a possession game that stood up to very good teams. And then they hit a wall about a month ago, not only losing the games, but losing the puck-possession that served them so well. This stretch coincided with the Wild playing several top teams (13 of the last 17 against current playoff teams), the Wild's performance then did nothing to suggest they could hang with the elite teams. Also...
- The Western Conference has been utterly ridiculous. The Wild have 45 points, and are now 10th place in the Conference. That amount of points would have them tied for 5th in the Eastern Conference, and 5 points ahead of the 9th place team. On the advanced metric side, 6 of the top 8 possession teams reside in the Western Conference. The Wild are 5 points behind Colorado for Conference III's third and final guaranteed spot, and 2 points behind Phoenix for the final Wild Card spot. The West is loaded. And thus...
- The odds are against the Wild to make the playoffs. Since the (first) lockout, the amount of points it's taken to guarantee a spot in the playoffs in the West has ranged from about 90 to 96 points, depending on the strength of the West in a given year. I would suspect that this year will be closer to 96 than 90. But, say the magic number is 95. That means the Wild will have to accumulate 51 points in their next 41 games. It's not impossible, but with all the competition, there's no margin for error.
- Is Mike Yeo the problem? Coaching is such an inexact science in the NHL that it's very difficult to ascertain the impact of it on the ice. Was the coaching good at the start of the year, but suddenly poor? Did the system change that dramatically? Can Yeo motivate this team? Has he "lost the room" somehow? I'm not sure anyone can definitively answer these questions, nor do I think anyone can tell how much of this recent slump is due to coaching, how much is due to other factors (such as injuries), and how much is due to luck.
- Can another coach do better? Going back to the first question, it's hard to say. There are names like Peter Laviolette, who has won a Cup and reached another Final, out there, but are they an upgrade? And even if Coach X is an upgrade, are they a good fit? If we could have confidence in NHL teams being able to select the right coaches, there'd be a lot less turnover in NHL coaches to begin with.
- What else can the Wild do? It's hard to say if the Wild have another card to play besides firing the head coach. There's not a free agent out there that the Wild can spend on, and cure their ills. As far as a trade goes, the Wild are hamstrung by the salary cap. The Wild would have to do something creative and/or costly to bring a player in. Can they pay a bit extra to dump Heatley's cap hit onto a trade partner? Do the Wild even want to give up prospects after the expensive (but good) Jason Pominville trade? There aren't a lot of options in the State of Hockey. Nothing is certain, but it seems likely the Wild are going to have to sink-or-swim with this team.
So what do I think? If Yeo can't get to the end of this homestand without falling further out of a playoff spot, I think he should go. This is the point where I add that Yeo, as far as I can tell, is a good guy, whose hire I supported, and who I wanted to return after last season. I want to make it clear that I, in no way, would relish him losing his job.
But at some point, it's just about business. Risk and reward. Last night for the game recap, Emilie stated
If Yeo gets canned, it's not going to turn this team around. It will not help the team play better defense, or score more than their opponent. This is an all around effort from just about every player and coach in the room just not showing up. Or trying too hard to show up, and blowing it completely.
That may be true, but if the Wild fall flat against St. Louis on Tuesday, what's the downside to making a change? A loss against St. Louis would be the Wild's 13th loss in 18 games. That's a stretch of almost a quarter of an 82-game season where the Wild has played like one of the worst teams in the league. For a team whose expectations are that of a playoff team, that's not an acceptable stretch. Can it get worse than it is right now if you bring in another voice?
Especially when you consider the history of these kinds of swoons these last few years. Clearly, Yeo's rookie year wasn't his fault. It was a team that was over-achieving mightily to begin with. Last year? A bit iffy. It was hard to watch, but injuries like Pominville's hurt, and the bottom-end defensive options were lacking, and the Wild did (just barely) recover from their slump to make the playoffs. But this year? It's now happened enough that I think you can start questioning whether a pattern exists. Maybe these slumps would have happened with any coach, but it doesn't seem that Yeo has an exceptional ability to stop the avalanche when the losses start to pile up.
Again, I do not relish seeing a guy like Mike Yeo lose his job. I like what I've seen from him, and I like rooting for his story. He coached the Houston Aeros to a Calder Cup Final appearance, impressing Chuck Fletcher enough to hire him when the industry expected Fletcher to hire a more experienced coach. Who doesn't like an underdog? And it's not clear if he's responsible for the Wild's lagging performance, or at least to what extent he's responsible for.
But what is clear is that for the second time in 8 months, Mike Yeo will be coaching for his job, and the Wild's playoff lives. Let's hope that he can find the answers and right the ship.