Q&A with Mike Yeo: Wild's Dany Heatley was playing hurt, needs surgery
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A common argument among Minnesota sports fans is figuring out who among the Wild, Wolves, Vikings and Twins will see the postseason next.
For various reasons, the Vikings and Twins are easily eliminated by most.
That leaves the Wolves and Wild.
One theory suggests that the Target Center March 9 "white-out" game was the beginning of a Wolves curse. Ricky Rubio tore his ACL that night and thereafter Kevin Love, Luke Ridnour and Nikola Pekovic have been hurt while the team is winless in April. It's only a matter of days until Utah, who sacrifices its first-round draft pick to the Wolves if they make the playoffs, misses out by one game.
So, by process of elimination, the answer by this sober columnist is the Wild. Partly because they have a ton of money -- $18 million -- to spend in free agency, and like the NBA, you have a 53% chance (eight out of 15) to make it.
Even weeks later, the sting of not making it for a fourth consecutive year still resonates at Wild headquarters. I recently sat down with coach Mike Yeo. Here's a transcript of our conversation:
You were No. 1 in the NHL on December 10 (with 43 points). You missed the playoffs. Never before in the history of the NHL has a team been in first that late in the season and not made the playoffs. What happened?
"Well, thanks for putting it that way. (slight chuckle) As if we didn't feel bad enough already. What happened quite simply is that we exceeded expectations early -- we got off to a great start and we're excited with what we were building. We had very little concern for what we had to lose -- we had nothing to lose.
"We weren't loaded with top-end offensive talent. We do have some high-level offensive guys, but as far as depth-wise compared to many teams, (we don't compare). In a very short time, we lost four of our top-six forwards. From that point on, we didn't handle it the right way. We very quickly went from a team with nothing to lose to a team that felt like it had everything to lose. There was a time where we were well within a playoff spot and getting comfortable, and the sense around here was quite often that we were in last place. If we could've just lived in the moment more, we would've handled it better."
Why did that last-place feeling exist?
"We worked so hard to get to something and we felt it slip away. A lot of it was seeing three of your top offensive players out of the lineup (Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Guillaume Latendresse) for a team that was struggling to score goals. It was difficult for the guys to see that things could get better. There were games where we'd do everything right, and we came up on the short end. That leads to a lot of frustration and disappointment."
How big of a deal were the injuries? When I am writing this season's obituary, should that part be in my lead sentence, my lead paragraph, or say, in the third or fourth paragraph?
"I'm not one to make excuses, but it's the story. When you look at the fact that we missed Mikko for as long as we did. Then we missed Butch (Bouchard) as long as we did and Gui (Latendresse), plus our goaltender (Niklas Backstrom) -- look at a team like Phoenix. If you go through Phoenix's top-seven players, and probably six played 82 games. It's not an excuse. It's something we learned how to deal with. But it's real. For a team with not a lot of offensive depth, a team at the start of the year that was a first place team as everyone thought we were, but every game we were winning was a one goal game, and then all of a sudden you take 1 1/2 to 2 goals out of our lineup on a nightly basis, it doesn't take long to do the math."
How much will you and general manager Chuck Fletcher study injury prevention this offseason?
"We've already started to look into that. From what we can do on a day-to-day basis -- how we practice, how we train, preventative measures we can take. As much as anything it's how we plan with the schedule -- making sure we have enough rest. It's a schedule that is more challenging than most teams. When we did have all those injuries, like Butch got hurt in Winnipeg, that was our first road game in our time zone. That was pretty incredible at that point in the season. You don't realize what a toll that takes on you, bouncing from time zone to time zone. It's not an excuse, but a real thing that exists. We have to better prepared for it next year."
The schedule isn't changing for at least a year.
"We will have to deal with it. I do feel confident that we learned a lot from this year. Yes, I am very disappointed. We all are. It's embarrassing not being in the playoffs. It really is. I truly believe for the long-term good for this franchise that we've done a lot to set the table for success. I really believe the culture is different and that we learned a lot about ourselves.
"For myself, (I learned) the schedule in the Western Conference and how much different it is. Scheduling, planning, and preparing for next year we will be much better off."
How is the culture different? To the average fan, you did what ex-coach Todd Richards did. No playoffs.
"I can't disagree with that. That's true. What I can say is that night-in and night-out, this is a team that plays with structure. Will go out and compete and sacrifice for each other. The work ethic for this team is tremendous. The way these guys come to the rink and the overall professionalism they have -- this locker room cares about each other and will do anything for each other, which is very impressive after getting through tough times.
"I can't argue. We're not in the playoffs. But when you look at the teams in the playoffs, and what they do and the way they behave, I'll argue with anyone who says we don't have those same things. As soon as we get guys back into the lineup, and do the things over the summer to strengthen our lineup, now we're ready to take that next step."
You said preseason you wanted your guys to have a shooter's mentality. No Wild team has ever had this few a shots on net. How do you change that mentality?
"To be honest, we did change it. Our shooter mentality has increased and has improved. It can still get better. But I see us taking more shots from the outside. I see us coming down a rush and taking a shot to create a rebound. What it comes down is a lack of execution. When you have as many as skill guys out of the lineup, especially on the back end, if you can't execute the right way, can't make plays with the puck, you won't be in a position to shoot.
"We spent so much time this year defending. We did a good job with that. But because of our execution problems, we spent so much time defending that it's tough to shoot the puck from your own zone. As we improve our team, and get more guys with a higher skill-level, we'll execute better. With that, we'll get ourselves in position to shoot the puck more frequently."
Chuck was on 1500 ESPN, and his point on you was that a coach can't create goals, but what a coach does is prevent goals. For most of the year, you guys were top-10 in goals against. Do you agree with that assessment that a coach can't create goals?
"I respect that he said that, and I like it, but part of my goal and job is to manufacture offense and put the players in a position to create offense. As the skill-level of our group goes up, I also believe our goals against will go down. Because of our breakdowns it doesn't matter how good of a defender you are, the puck will end up in the back of our net.
"It is difficult for us to put the puck into the net. That comes down to skill and having goal scorers and all those types of things. What we can do as a coaching staff is make sure we have the right plan in place -- practicing the right things, doing the right things to make sure guys have the right mentality when going onto the ice. There are some things we need to look at as a staff and figure out what we can do better. We have to find a way as a staff to create more offense."
"Well, we can go on about a lot of guys. If you want to talk about our MVP, how can we sit here and not talk about Mikko (Koivu). Pretty simply: look at how we did with him in the lineup at the start of the year. Then look at what we did when he was out, and what happened when he came back, I think that ends the argument.
"If we want to hand out awards, Kyle Brodziak is our most improved player and certainly one of our most consistent. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and know we can win with him. 29 other teams would love to have him because of the way he competes and battles -- plays the game defensively, plays both sides of the puck. No question, he deserves to be in that argument.
"I'm sure people will look at Dany Heatley and measure him on his (24) goals, but that's not fair. Being here working with him day-to-day and seeing how he works behind-the-scenes... He's a plus-player and that's really impressive for the amount of goals that we actually scored 5-on-5. He plays the game on both sides of the puck. He had 24 and it easily could've been 30 with the chances he had. Still had 238 shots, which was far more than anyone else. A goal scorer needs someone to get them the puck, and in certain situations. Not having a center and having a lot of our defense out, plus guys out on our power play, all those things affected him.
"He played hurt for much of the season. Leadership-wise, everything he did for us can't be overstated."
How hurt was he? That's the first I am hearing that.
"It's significant. So significant that he now needs a procedure. It's nothing that will cause him any further problems, but he has to get it taken care of now. Lucky for us we have time this offseason for him to recover and to still have a good summer of training."
Can you disclose what the procedure is?
"Not right now."
Can you win at a big-time level with goalie Niklas Backstrom?
"For sure. We did win at a big-time level with him as our No. 1 goalie. The injuries are a part of it. It's something we have to get past. We have to find out how to stay in the lineup better. This isn't the first year this has happened. Things were going really well for us, and next thing you know, he's getting hurt. It's tough for a goalie to come back and get into a rhythm. When he's healthy, playing his game, and we're playing our game in front of him, he gives us a great chance to win. That's all you can ask of a goalie.
"We certainly have to talk to him about some things and we have already to do differently to get him to play longer."
What are some of those things?
"What people don't know about Backstrom is the amount of work and preparation he puts in before a game. His workload is very heavy because like most great athletes he wants to come to the rink knowing he's done everything to give himself a great chance to succeed. Having said that, as the year goes on, he needs to recognize that he needs some rest and backing off in some situations. I think he recognizes that now. He plans to do some things differently this summer training-wise to help set him up for that success next year."
Bouchard told us in the locker room recently that he's pretty confident he'll be back next year. But do you have to plan as if he won't be back because of those post-concussion symptoms?
"It would be foolish on our part to assume he'll play every game for us next year. He's a part of our team and not having him around... He probably goes undervalued as far as how effective a player he is and how important he is. At the same time, you have to be able to count on certain people and considering his history for the last couple years, that makes it difficult. We have to have a plan with him in the lineup and that's our best plan, but given his history, we have to have a Plan B and that's something we already have addressed."
In your season-ending interviews with each player individually, what has stood out?
"When we do these meetings we talk about everything from the team to the game we're playing to their own personal season and what they need to improve on. What stood out and what was consistent was how much our guys believe in what we did this year and how much it'll help us in the future. Every guy, and I like this, is upset right now. Every guy is very disappointed in the season. We let something slip away. At the same time, every guy feels good about the culture we have, the group we have, how much they care for each other, and the standards we have here. There is a lot of optimism going forward."
A lot of that optimism is tied to the $18M in cap space you can have for free agents on July 1. How do you temper fan expectations because many are expecting at least one monster move (Zach Parise) and maybe two (Ryan Suter)?
"There are 29 other fanbases who have similar hopes. We will do everything we can, but we have to be realistic. We have to understand that these players have choices. I know we want to do everything we can to improve our team. I know that Craig (Leipold, the Wild owner) will provide every resource. I know that Chuck and his staff are out scouting right now. We will do everything we can as an organization to bring people in. People that we think that can really make a difference.
"I really believe we have laid much of the groundwork. The reputation of our team and the culture and attitude we have here has spread. People recognize that this is a place you can come to and win. I think people realize that this is a market you want to play in. The fans are outstanding and the building is outstanding. There is so much to offer. But we have to be real. These players do have choices, so there are no guarantees."
Why should a free agent choose here over Detroit, as they, like you, will have money to spend?
"That's up to the player. I won't sit here and say anything about Detroit. It's a tremendous organization. But look at what we can provide. Our fanbase and their passion make this a great place to play. The building we have, ownership, the group we have, we have a lot to offer. With a team like us -- right on the brink -- if I ever had the opportunity to be a top-level free agent, coming to a place and being the guy who makes the difference would be very tempting. Take the team to the next step, that would be very gratifying and rewarding for those guys I believe."
Forget free agency. One presumed addition is former first round pick Mikael Granlund (can't sign until May 21). How special can he be?
"I have no answer. I can tell you our scouts and others tell me tremendous things. Having said that, he's a rookie. He's coming over to North America on a full-time basis for the first time, so there are challenges. He will be a great player. How quickly? I can't tell you. I can tell you we will give this kid every opportunity to succeed -- from what we teach him to the players we let him play with. His upside is very high. We want to give him a great chance to succeed."
Is there a newfound fame for you? If you're at Target or Best Buy, do fans recognize you and if so, what do they typically tell you?
"I think I have a recognizable haircut. I am one of those people that the losses eat at me big-time. There were many times, too many, that after losing a game I didn't want to be in public just for the fear of running into someone and having to explain things. Next thing you know, I'm out and I run into a fan, and in every one of those situations I went home feeling great. The support we have and the support I've gotten, all it does is motivate us more. I just can't wait to start next year. We're already in the rink figuring out where we need to be better and what we can do differently. I know our players feel the same way. We're motivated. We want to win for this fanbase."
Can you watch the playoffs, or is it too tough?
"We have to. I told the players that I don't want to hear it's too tough. It's part of it for us. You have to watch to recognize what you're missing. That has to drive you now, in the summer, and into next year. We have to recognize a) how those games are played -- the intensity, the incredible pace, and b) how much fun those games are. You look at the momentum swings, the fans going crazy, the speed, it has to be something we look at and say we have to be a part of. We don't have the luxury of saying it's too hard."
Do you feel a fair amount of pressure to make the playoffs next year since ex-coach Todd Richards only got two years?
"I felt pressure this year. I don't look at it like I can lose my job. I know that's a possibility when you're the head coach, but it doesn't motivate me. I don't coach to keep my job. I coach because I want to win another Stanley Cup. Next year I'll coach because I want to help deliver this team to the playoffs. I want this fanbase to be rewarded. I want Craig (Leipold) to cheer us on in the playoffs because of everything he provides for us. Same goes for Chuck (Fletcher). He's in the front line. It's hard to recognize with a general manager, but he's doing everything right. I'm sure there are some things he'd like to do differently, but that's like everybody. I have a lot of respect for the plan he has in place and his courage to stick with it."
What did you learn this year?
"I'm still going through my notes. I keep a notebook throughout the year. It's too many to list right now. Everything from the schedule, planning, preparation, time management -- dealing with the media and other things I am not used to, bench management, how we run practices, to tactical parts of the game. There are a lot of things. We are gathering all those thoughts and notes right now. We need to learn from it and learn how to use it to make ourselves better next year."