Wolfson: 'It has been hard lately,' Wild coach Mike Yeo says of skid
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Five points separates sixth and 12th place in the NHL's Western Conference.
In other words, the remaining 38 games for the eighth-place Wild (50 points) -- 20 of those games at home -- will be an interesting test for first-year coach Mike Yeo, as will this next stretch of seven of nine games on the road.
Once the best road team in the NHL, the Wild have just seven goals in their last eight games away from the "X" and are 0-7-1 in that stretch.
From Feb. 23 until the end of the regular season, the Wild will play 23 games, with only three stretches of more than one consecutive day off. Practice time will be limited as a playoff berth for the first time since the 2007-08 season is so desperately wanted.
I sat down with Yeo on Wednesday morning and discussed, among other topics, the idea of playing into mid-April and beyond.
The locker room has four words: Character, work ethic, accountability, and commitment. Is your team buying into those traits?
This is not something you buy into. These are traits you have to possess. I do think you can build a lot of these things. I don't think any of us have reached our full potential with those traits. These are things you need to be successful and it doesn't matter what you do. I have seen many of these things through different parts of the season, which leads me to believe that this group does possess many of those traits.
But there have been lulls through this year?
Yeah. Certainly this latest one is a big lull. What they need to understand is that this is a part of the journey. I don't want to accept this by any means, but at the end of the year, they will tell a story, they will talk about our season, and this will be a chapter. This will also help determine what kind of a story it is -- how do we get through this? What will they say about how that made us stronger at that point, or did we let this latest little slide be the story of our season?
You strike me as a very even-keeled guy. If it's 17-4 over 21 games, or one win over 12 games, your public emotions are the same. Is it hard to maintain that level constantly?
I might give off that look, but on the inside, I quite often feel different things. It's not easy when things are going real well to not feel real good about yourself, and we all got caught up in that a little bit -- and a lot of our games were on the road at that point. You're playing a new team every night, and they (media) are asking the same question, 'Why are you so good, and, How are you doing this?' Next thing you know, we start thinking we're really good, and forget about all the things we need to do to make us good. On the flip side, things have now gone a little in the other direction and people are saying, 'Why can't you win?' Dealing with those things and living in the moment and being able to come to the rink and focus on what you have to do that day, and pour what you have to into that game, has been a challenge for us, but certainly something we can learn from.
We certainly get a lot of access to your team, but it's not unlimited. Is there a part of you we don't see, or is what we see is what we get?
I don't know what you see. I can say, 'What you see is what you get.' But obviously there are lots of things you don't have access to. I can be a bit of a goofball sometimes. One word that is fairly consistent when people talk about me is intense. I think I can relax and have a good time with my family and do those types of things too. So, it's tough to say.
Do you take losses home, and wins too?
Yeah. For sure. It's impossible not to. At 3 o'clock in the morning you're thinking about (the game) -- that's if you've even fallen asleep. This is a 24-hour-a-day job. Maybe in the summer after a week off you stop dreaming about hockey. But that's what I love about it. It's my passion. I love to do it. I hate to lose, but I don't dread the fact that I am thinking about it. It's another opportunity to come to the rink to fix that and get better.
Tuesday night's win aside, you've talked about your team losing its aggressiveness. Is that one of your toughest challenges -- getting these guys to regain that edge, that level of aggression?
It's a challenge for us. I don't want to say it is because we have the group and character to do it. I think it's more of a challenge this time of year versus November, or even later in the year. These are the dog days -- you've had injuries and your body is beat-up. You're tired because travel has been tough, so how do you come to the rink ready to fight? Earlier in the year was easier for us. Mentally, we need to become tougher. I think that's what needs to happen right now. We saw that last night (Tuesday vs. San Jose), and if we continue to do that, we'll be going in the right direction.
If I'm writing the mid-season report card, how much space should I spend on injuries?
I hate using it as an excuse or crutch because we still have guys out. I expect us to go in with no reason why we can't win. Looking back at this stretch, injuries had an effect on our team, had an effect on some players and the roles they had. You have a couple injuries, then all of a sudden you have more because guys are playing more minutes, tougher minutes. So, it is a reality that injuries play a part in it. I look at some other teams like Pittsburgh, and they can overcome injuries, but of late it has been impossible to keep it up for that long. Having said that, we have a chance to get better and keep learning from this. I think we are getting there.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard (concussion) has a special helmet and a special mouth guard, and it still happens. Is it an epidemic in the sport right now? Speaking of Pittsburgh, look at Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang ...
It's a scary thing. It's a scary thing -- how many there are and how many good players are getting them. It's a tough thing for me to even talk about just because I don't know. When we played, it was very different -- from the way we viewed them to the way they were handled and the lack of knowledge. It's a very different time. There's certainly a heightened awareness and that's a good thing. We have to try and find some type of solution or at least help rectify the problem we have right now.
Are you fairly simple in that you have two rules: be on time, and play hard, or is there more? The reason I ask is because a guy (Devin Setoguchi) doesn't show up Tuesday morning. That has to be maddening.
We've got high standards here. High standards for the professionalism we conduct ourselves with, the discipline we have, the work ethic we bring, and that's every day, not just on game day. You build those habits, those traits, and you carry them into the game with you. I don't believe the game starts when you drop the puck. I believe it starts a lot earlier than that -- how you prepare yourself, how you come to the rink, what you've done the days leading up to it, and mentally putting yourself in the right mind frame and going out and battling.
We see coaches let go on a regular basis in the NHL, seemingly way more so than other sports. Guys go after just a handful of games. So, is your mentality to go to (general manager) Chuck Fletcher and tell him to do something by the trade deadline. It's a dog-eat-dog business.
It is, but I don't think about that. I focus on the things I can control. Every day Chuck, I, the rest of the staff, we're always talking about our roster, the group we have in, and the group that could be on its way, potential moves we can make, it happens every day. My motivation for wanting to win is not so I can keep my job. My motivation for that is to get to the point where we can compete for the Stanley Cup.
How close are you to competing for the Cup? When we sat down preseason, you told me you wanted your team to play like Detroit and Pittsburgh. Are you getting there?
We're getting there. We've got ourselves in a position to start competing for the playoffs. I think I remember what I said to you: we'll be there when every day we're doing the things that winners do. We're close. We've done it when things have come easy for us. Now, we have to do it at this tough time of the year. We have to get through the injuries and sustain what we have going, and do it for the rest of the year. We have to do it when the pressure is on, when someone is nipping at your heels, being at your best, and not being afraid to lose. I would say we're getting there, but we're not there yet. That's a part of the journey, the process for us -- going through those things and learning from them, then using them to make you stronger. At the end of the year we've done enough of those things then we'll be in the playoffs.
Are you closer than you thought at the midseason point?
I didn't put a whole lot of expectations on where we'd be. I know what I want to see. We're not going to stop. Whatever happens to us, we're going to use it to come back and be better the next day until we see that team.
In general terms, do you need a top-six forward or a scoring defenseman more?
To be honest with you, I don't know. I'm not focused on what we don't have. We talk about areas we can improve as a team, but my focus is on the group we have and making sure this group is prepared and ready to go.
Frustrating that the power play (on a 1-for-33 streak and 26th in the NHL as of Friday in goals) has been struggling since it's your baby?
Well, it's not mine, just for the record.
But it was in Pittsburgh, so you certainly have a background with the man advantage ...
Yeah. Frustration is a word I try to avoid using because it brings negative results and that's one thing that has crept into our game is frustration, particularly on the power play. So, I've never been one to hope for results and all of a sudden things are better. I'd rather us do the right things then the results will come. The longer our issues continue, it becomes more difficult. I feel like our power play is at the point where they definitely need a couple goals to start feeling good about themselves, to start having some sort of success out there.
Advanced statistics are very popular in baseball, and getting there in basketball. Do you used advanced statistics?
I have certain statistics I look at, and carefully. But a lot of them I don't buy into. You can find stats for everything. I know what I value and those are the ones I look at.
Ok, so what do you look at?
Scoring chances, for and against, is the biggest one for me -- who was involved, how did they come. I think you learn a lot about your team, your players, and the other team.
TSN did the preseason list of its top 50 players and nobody on your team made it. If they redo that list, should you have someone on it?
Absolutely there should. A big part of us winning that I was happy about was some of our players were starting to get recognized and we deserve that. We have a captain (All-Star Mikko Koivu) that people need to be talking about. Because he's captain, because he's the leading scorer, everything is weighed upon how much he's scoring. But the reality is that he does so much more than that. He does so many more things that other scorers who might have more points don't do, and he does them real well.
Should Dany Heatley be on that list?
Should be. Yeah. Everyone wants to be focused on goals. But we're competing against the top teams in the league, and for that to happen, our top-line guys have to be doing something right. He's one of our top players.
Scouts say his hands are still those of a 21-year-old Heatley ...
He's still getting chances. How many guys do you see who score 50-goals every season? One year they score 30 and the next they score 50. It's not because they became a better player. It's that the puck goes in. They are probably getting the same amount of chances. The reality is that I'm sure Dany Heatley is getting the same chances as last year and the year before that, but sometimes it doesn't go in.
No team that was No. 1 in the league as late as you were -- mid-December -- has ever missed the playoffs. Will you be surprised if you're not a playoff team?
I don't think about that stuff. There's always a lot of never befores. We can't get caught up in the playoffs right now. If we do that, we'll lose sight of what's in front of us. This is sort of what has happened to us in this recent spell. We were doing so many good things: we weren't thinking about the playoffs, we were just thinking about coming to the rink and proving ourselves. With that came a lot of consistency and a lot of wins. Then we lost a couple games, everyone talking about the playoffs, our positioning in the standings, thinking about what's down the road instead of living in that moment.
You briefly touched on Steelers coach Mike Tomlin being someone you admire in our last sit-down. Having covered him in 2006, I see the similarities. Can you expound on that?
I don't say as many cool things as he does. I watch his press conferences and he has it figured out pretty good. He does have a presence and I like that about him. You can tell he's got a very firm belief in what he wants to accomplish. He's very strong-willed, and I like that.
You're from a small part of Ontario and so is Claude Noel (Winnipeg coach). That's pretty unique...
We're from a tiny area in northern Ontario. There's even a couple others. Randy Carlyle (former Ducks coach) is from fairly close to there. There's not much else to do up there. You fish and you play hockey.
Did you think as a youngster that you would be in this position, an NHL head coach at 38?
At that point I was thinking about playing in the league. As I got older I got into coaching. I started to become a bit of a leader. I started to see myself having the ability to coach one day. I didn't know at what level. As things progressed, I knew this was something I wanted to pursue.
How much fun are you having?
I'm having the time of my life, every day. It has been hard lately. I tell the guys, 'We need to embrace the hard.' That's what makes it special at the end, getting through these tough times. If it was easy, everyone would do it. If it was easy, it wouldn't be as special. That's what makes it special is getting through those things, overcoming them, and finding a way at the end being where you want to be.