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Updated: October 6th, 2011 2:57pm
Mike Yeo Q&A: 'I'm expecting this team to surprise a lot of people'

Mike Yeo Q&A: 'I'm expecting this team to surprise a lot of people'

by Darren Wolfson
1500ESPN.com
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The 2007-08 Northwest Division championship banner that hangs atop Xcel Energy Center is as large as the expectations for this year's Minnesota Wild team. It's also a reminder of the last time they made the postseason.

Mike Yeo, the youngest head coach in the NHL at 38 years old and a first-timer, welcomes those standards. He sat down on Wednesday morning for a Q&A:

You've talked so much about Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Mikko Koivu, etc. Let's talk about you: are you ready to do this as we're just days away from your NHL head coaching debut?

I'm more than ready to do this. We've been waiting to do this for a long time. I feel like our team is ready. I feel like we've had a really good training camp. We're not where we need to be yet, but nobody is. Really, our focus needs to be on getting better every game. As far as me, I just want to get this going. I'm ready for this.

Will you have a moment on Saturday night where you look around and say to yourself, 'I've made it'?

I don't know if I will to be honest with you because I don't know if I've made it. Obviously my goal was to get to the NHL, but I have much bigger plans than that. I think we can accomplish a lot of those things this year. Certainly it's a step. I'll use my career to describe our team: it's part of the process. We're getting there. That first game I'll feel like we're getting there. But I don't feel like I've arrived. I don't feel like I've done what I've needed to do yet.

What do you now know about your team that you didn't know before training camp?

Well, certainly about some individuals. We have some guys who I didn't realize are as good as they are, or as good as they could be I should say. The biggest thing for me that I didn't know coming in is what our overall attitude was going to be like -- what kind of character do we have, what kind of leadership do we have?

It's amazing what you can get out of a group, how hard you can push them when you have that sort of leadership, and how they respond. So, to me, the way guys have responded, the attitude they have brought to the rink, just the way they've approached practice, trying to get better every day has been a real pleasant surprise.

You must have had a decent feel though -- you went to Finland to meet with Koivu, numerous conversations with Heatley and Setoguchi, so you had to have a decent feel for the leadership, right?

Sure, you have a decent feel. But we can all say whatever we want in the summer. Everyone is feeling good, the body is rested, and you miss going to the rink... Not that I didn't believe those guys, but you need to see it to believe it. Reactions are what we're really looking for right now. I don't want to say talk is cheap, but the reality is that anyone can say anything. So to see these guys go out -- everyone talked about how focused they are, how much they want to win here and how committed they are -- I see them backing it up. They're on board, committed. The attitude has been great.

Isn't that what you expected, though?

I don't know that I expected anything. I went in with a pretty clear mind. I was certainly hopeful of that, and I did have some expectations for some of the guys. But as a group you don't know how it will come together right away. Again, we're not there yet. We haven't even played a regular season game. But I would deem our training camp a success. Looking back at training camp and where we're at, I feel really good about the attitude the guys had -- the buy-in to the system, to the way we want to play the game, and more than anything else, the work I've been very impressed with.

Sports Illustrated has you 2nd in the Northwest. ESPN the Magazine has you last, so varying opinions on how you'll do. What's your reaction to that?

Doesn't really matter to me. I actually love the ones that predict us to be last. That's great stuff, but it's all predictions right now. It's meaningless. People have to find something to talk about, but they are made-up stories. They're make-up stories. The real story is at the end of the year. We're having meetings with the guys right now and my message to them: we get to write the story. They can predict all they want, but the way we play the game, and the success we have, that's the story. So, even though they're the ones writing it, we get to determine what is said.

General manager Chuck Fletcher told espn.com, "I feel like we'll be a lot better team than the pundits think we'll be." Agree with him?

I do. I do. In the summer you go in, you're optimistic, you feel good about the pieces you have, but until you start working with them, you don't know. The more I'm around these guys, the more excited I get, the more confident I get, the more belief I have what we can accomplish here. I know they'll be struggles, and I can't wait to see how we deal with those struggles. I can't wait to see how we deal with that adversity. But I'm real confident that we'll get through those things, and with that, they'll make us better. I'm expecting this team to surprise a lot of people."

TSN out of Canada just compiled its top-50 players in the NHL list, and not one member of the Wild is on it. Surprised?

Winning brings the spotlight to certain individuals. Hopefully that's a huge motivator for a lot of our guys. If you want that, and that's what drives you, there's one way to accomplish it: win hockey games. We're all motivated by different things, but winning will help you accomplish whatever that is.

It doesn't really matter where they project our guys to be as long as we're focused on getting better and giving our best every day. That list will change next year, so let's just make sure we're on it next year.

That first line -- Heatley, Koivu, Setoguchi -- will be fun to watch, won't it?

It already is. Those guys have had a great training camp, they've been lighting the lamp... I think they'll continue to get better the more they play together. But with that we have a second line, or a so-called second line that can almost be a 1-B, I think that right now can surprise a lot of people. They're a huge part of our story as well. If Guillaume (Latendresse), Butch (Pierre-Marc Bouchard, and Cully (Matt Cullen) can do what we think they're capable of doing it's another tremendous story.

That's not to leave out the rest of the group. Every guy on our team is equally important -- you all have a role to play, a job to do. If we're all focused on doing our job, that's what makes us a great team.

Bouchard in many ways is the key to your offensive success, especially now that he's healthy. You have a good feel for what your first line will provide, but he's the wild card. He's good enough to play on many teams first line, and he's on your second line.

Just had a meeting with him this morning. I've had the tremendous fortune to work with some tremendous athletes -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin. You'd come to the rink and these guys were always doing something fun, making you say, 'Whoa, that's pretty good.' And I said to Butch that he does that once a day, twice a day. He does something in practice, in a game that makes you go, 'Whoa!' Man, it takes your breath away a little bit, how did he do that? He has that ability. I'm really optimistic on what he can do. I think he can take another step. He's a guy who doesn't get the recognition he deserves. Hopefully as a team we have that success, and individually for him he has that success so people start talking about him the way they should be.

You lose Brent Burns. Nick Schultz seems to be OK, but could have post-concussion symptoms. Mike Lundin is out. How much concern is there with your defensemen?

I'm happy with the progress we've made in camp. I think the biggest thing is for our defenseman to buy-in on how we want to play the game -- move the puck north quickly, execute the right way with the puck to get it to our forwards quickly, read the rush, let the puck come to you, keep the play in front of you. If we're playing our system the right way, our forwards should do a lot of the work for our defensemen. They should be pursuing pucks, tracking pucks, and creating turnovers in front of them, giving our D the chance to just sit back and not have to chase the play too much. That's an easier way for the defensemen to play the game. We're asking those guys to play solid, but we're also not asking them to perform miracles. I think the guys have been great so far. We have very capable guys who are capable of executing. I've been happy with the play of our defense so far.

Koivu is as good a two-way player as there is, but he's never scored more than 22 goals in a season. Might this be the year he scores 25, 26, 27 goals?

Maybe. Maybe. It's funny, but stats really don't mean a whole lot to me. Maybe they should. I don't know why. To me, show me what you're doing today, and what are you doing to be better tomorrow.

The stats are going to come if he's focused on playing his game every day. The thing with Mikko is he doesn't have to score to play a great game, so just go out there and play great game after great game. If you go out and do that day in and day out, the results will be there -- you'll have a season where you have over 30 goals. So don't worry about that. Just go out and concentrate on playing great hockey.

Not too long ago, your goalie, Niklas Backstrom, was tied for the best save percentage in the league. Since then he's been a roller coaster. What has he shown you through the preseason?

He's a tremendous professional. I have not been around too many guys who prepare like he prepares -- to put in the work he does, to have the focus he has. The guy is 100% committed to being the best he can be. Because of that, you see the consistency in his game. He's a solid goaltender. He's a great first-save goalie. I'm expecting our team to play the right way with the puck, so we give our goalie a great chance to succeed.

He's going to make the saves you want him to make, and he'll make some more. We don't want to ask Back(strom) to dive headfirst from side-to-side trying to make incredible, fantastic saves. He's proven he can make some of those. Most important is that he makes the saves we expect him to make, and so far, he's looked really good.

Ready to be scrutinized by a passionate fan base?

I love being around hockey people, and people asking about the team. I would much rather have that than people who don't care. People care here, and that's what you want. We feel like we're in it with our fans here. The fans are important to us. I'm ready for it. We talk about it as a negative thing, but it can be a very positive thing. You want the opportunity to win in front of this fan base, to build that excitement. They deserve a winning team. It would be a lot of fun.

Darren "Doogie" Wolfson is the jack-of-all-trades sports guy for 5 Eyewitness News and a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Darren | @darrenwolfson
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