The firing of Mike Yeo as head coach of the Minnesota Wild last Saturday marked the end of what had been on the surface a promising NHL career. Instead Yeo’s firing revealed deeply concealed flaws that have surfaced only now after being submerged under the icy lakes of Minnesota.
Five years ago Mike Yeo was a bright young coaching talent who had served well in the AHL for the Wild. He took over a team that had underachieved ever since the departure of Jacques Lemaire (who had built and taught that team from scratch) in 2009.
Yeo had served a lovely apprenticeship with the Penguins AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre-Scranton (a great breeding ground for NHL coaching talent: Michel Therrien, Dan Bylsma, and John Hynes had coached there as well). Later he worked in Pittsburgh as an assistant to Therrien and Bylsma when they were head coaching there (Yeo was there when the Penguins won the 2008/09 Stanley Cup—his responsibility was coaching the Penguins special teams who finished 18th in power-play offense and 8th in penalty-killing respectively during that championship season).
His first head coaching gig came in 2010 when the Minnesota Wild hired Yeo to man the helm of their AHL affiliate in Houston. The Aeros had finished last the season before but Yeo harnessed some newly acquired offensive talents and took Houston from worst to first in only season. Leading the Aeros all the way to the Calder Cup finals before losing in six games to the Binghamton Senators (the Aeros had a 2-1 series lead before losing games four through six to the Sens). Yeo’s AHL coaching value was a lovely +11 not bad for a head coaching debut.
Minnesota decided not to wait and immediately elevated him to the head coaching job in the NHL thus making him (at age 38) the youngest head coach in the NHL (and would remain so until his firing). Yeo was a defensive minded coach who improved the Minnesota penalty-kill until they became the best in the NHL in 2014/15. Mike started off slow with a losing season and failure to make the playoffs in his rookie season but for the next three seasons he made the Wild winners and playoff contenders—each year improving the team’s winning percentage from .494% in his debut season to .610% last season (the second greatest performance in Wild franchise history). In seasons three and four he took Minnesota to the second round only to lose to the Chicago Blackhawks.
And yet there were disturbing tremors along the way. In seasons three and four the team started off slowly out of the gate and had periods of inconsistency that put Yeo in the hot seat only to revive in time to save his position. Yeo expected the team to play consistent pressure defense but there were times when either the spirit or the flesh or both were insufficient.
Still, according to my rating system featured in Bench Bosses Yeo was a +9 in coaching value with the potential to do even better. Indeed I felt that Minnesota could be the stealth team in the 2016 playoffs and perhaps Minnesota might surprise everyone and reach the finals. Instead the team has collapsed and has played dead. Yeo had trouble accepting responsibility for his share of the team’s failure (it wasn’t solely Yeo’s fault. Wild GM Chuck Fletcher has to take his share of the blame too but could Yeo fire Fletcher?)
In the end Chuck Fletcher did the ritual thing and replaced him with John Torchetti who had coached the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Iowa. Whether Torchetti is the permanent solution remains to be seen. Personally I doubt it which means Chuck Fletcher will have to comb the underbrush for a new coach when the regular season ends in April.
For Mike Yeo he needs to reconstitute himself psychologically. He either needs to coach in the AHL and rediscover what it takes to be a real coach or else he will become a permanent assistant coach who does better being the supporting player than being the leading man himself.