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Updated: October 3rd, 2013 12:07pm
Zulgad: As season dawns, pressure is on for Wild head coach Mike Yeo

Zulgad: As season dawns, pressure is on for Wild head coach Mike Yeo

by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The Wild avoided an early-season distraction when they announced Thursday morning that winger Jason Pominville had signed a five-year contract extension that will keep him in Minnesota through 2018-19.

But the move doesn't mean there won't be another potential distraction for this franchise. It simply means the focus has now shifted to the man behind the bench.

In many ways, Mike Yeo is fortunate he remains head coach of this team.

The Wild entered the lockout-shortened 2013 season with big expectations after owner Craig Leipold invested $196 million in free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.  

Yeo had his team in first place in the Northwest Division with a month left in the season but then, just as had happened the previous season, the wheels came off.

Despite trading for Pominville, the Wild went 5-8-1 down the stretch and suffered a humiliating 6-1 loss to Edmonton at home in the second-to-last game of the season before managing to sneak into the playoffs with a 3-1 win at Colorado.

The Wild's first playoff appearance after a four-season absence didn't last long as the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks dispatched them in five games.

If the Wild hadn't managed to halt their late-season slide just in time and missed the playoffs, it's hard to believe that Yeo would have been retained by Leipold and general manager Chuck Fletcher.

There remained a feeling that the quick playoff exit might have cost Yeo his job, given Leipold's investments in Parise and Suter meant a deep playoff run was, and is, needed to make the moves look financially sound.

The Wild brass elected to stick with Yeo.

But as the Wild prepares to open the season on Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings, there is little doubt that a list of NHL coaches on the hot seat includes Yeo.

He is entering the final season of his contact and there is no doubt that Leipold, who might be the biggest fan of any local sports owner, is expecting big things.

Gone are the excuses of not having a training camp or not having players be familiar with one another because of the lockout.

The Wild have what could be one of the NHL's best top lines in Mikko Koivu, Parise and Pominville and a second line that features one of the NHL's best young players in Charlie Coyle. There also are few defensive pairings better than Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin, who might be the best defenseman to wear an NHL jersey in this state (North Stars or Wild) before he's done.

Yeo does have some issues to deal with, including his goaltending situation.

Can starter Niklas Backstrom remain healthy and be good enough to lead a deep playoff run? Many of us have our doubts. The Wild also is making the move from the not-so-difficult Northwest Division to a Central Division that features Cup favorites in Chicago and St. Louis.

Leipold is unlikely to want to hear any excuses.

What he does want is for the Xcel Energy Center to be sold out on a nightly basis once again and for that to happen deep into the spring. He gave Yeo the pieces to make that happen by signing Parise and Suter in July 2012 and then approving Pominville's five-year deal that will pay a reported $28 million.

Yeo must now take that talent and make sure it can deliver victories. If that fails to happen, there might be someone new behind the home bench at the X before the snow begins to fly.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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