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Updated: March 17th, 2012 6:44pm
Zulgad: Wild's latest collapse leaves Mike Yeo fresh out of answers

Zulgad: Wild's latest collapse leaves Mike Yeo fresh out of answers

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Throughout his first season as coach of the Minnesota Wild, Mike Yeo has been a pretty easy guy to read during his postgame press conferences.

Yeo is a passionate and fiery individual, so his emotions have run the gamut.

There were times early in the season, as the Wild climbed to the top of the NHL standings, when he came off as being extremely proud with the effort of his players, and there were other occasions, as the Wild sank out of the playoff picture, when his energies were channeled into expressing his disappointment or anger.

But Saturday afternoon, as Yeo reflected on the Wild's eighth loss in nine games, there was something different about his demeanor. After seeing his team blow a two-goal lead and get booed off the ice during a 5-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes at Xcel Energy Center, Yeo seemed like a guy who had been given his dream job only to find himself in the middle of a nightmare.

"It's beyond frustrating," Yeo said after the Wild gave up three third-period goals, including an empty-netter. "It's hard to put into words right now to be honest with you."

This much is clear: Yeo is a man who has attempted to push every button with this team and now has reached the point of exasperation.

With 11 games left in the season, the Wild is 29-32-10. The team's 68 points put them ahead of only Edmonton (63 points) and Columbus (51) in the 15-team Western Conference.

Overall, the Wild came out of the loss with as many points as Montreal and one point better than the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference.

The Wild's fall has been remarkable.

This is a team that had a 20-8-3 record and led the entire NHL with 43 points on Dec. 14 as they prepared to play host to the Chicago Blackhawks.

It would have been foolish to expect the Wild to keep that pace - especially given the injuries that began to impact some of the top players and the fact they were replaced with career minor-leaguers - but no one could have predicted that the franchise would completely collapse.

Not like this.

General manager Chuck Fletcher fired Todd Richards following the Wild's 39-35-8 season in 2010-11. That record left the Wild with 86 points. It will take a miracle for them to get near that point total this season.

Yeo and Fletcher don't seem to be in any immediate danger of losing their jobs - if Yeo doesn't work out as head coach, Fletcher is as good as gone, too - but this also can't be allowed to continue.

Changes need to be made this offseason. The Wild is counting on a group of outstanding young prospects to give it a boost in 2012-13 and Yeo has to make sure that whatever has happened to this season's team doesn't rub off in any way on the youngsters.

If that means deciding a guy like Devin Setoguchi doesn't fit in the locker room, then so be it. The winger arrived in the Brent Burns trade from San Jose with big expectations but he ended up as a minus-2 on Saturday and is a minus-15 for the season in 58 games.

If that means Dany Heatley's a one-and-done in Minnesota, that's fine, too. Heatley scored 26 goals last season with the Sharks in what the Wild hoped was a one-year blip for a guy who has scored 50 goals twice in his career. But Heatley is now stuck on 20 goals in 71 games and there is a real chance his best years are simply behind him.

Early in the season, there were times when it seemed as if Yeo would not accept losing and at times was able to will his players to feel the same way. That feeling is long gone. The fire still burns in Yeo's eyes, but far too many players in the Wild locker room appear to be resigned to what's happening to them.

One player who doesn't convey that attitude is center Kyle Brodziak, who had a goal and two assists on Saturday and made it clear he didn't care one bit that he had managed to fill up the score sheet.

"It doesn't matter," he said when asked about his own success. "It's about winning games and we've just got to find ways to win games. Everyone in here is sick of losing and it's not a fun feeling. Getting booed in your own rink. We know we deserve it, and we've got to find a way to give the fans something to cheer about."

Six months into Yeo's first season as an NHL head coach, he was asked what his message is at this point. Even if players aren't listening to it, Yeo has to be conveying something to these guys.

"The message is pretty simple," he said. "It's we all have to hate losing a lot more than ... we can never accept this. I don't care who we've got out of the lineup, we cannot accept this. We're in hell, it's not fun and if you don't accept it than the next day you come back and you bring a little bit more. If that's my job to make sure I cover that little inch of the ice than I'm going to do it. And you have that urgency in your game."

For months now, the Wild haven't had that urgency. The sad thing is that any objective observer looked at Saturday's loss to Carolina as a good thing.

The season is lost for the Wild.

They won't be in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year and the name of the game at this point is getting as high of draft pick as possible. Only the bottom five teams in the NHL are eligible to get the top overall-pick in the lottery system, and Carolina entered Saturday one point ahead of the Wild.

The Hurricanes had increased that lead to three points by the time they departed Xcel Energy Center.

Yeo, of course, wants nothing to do with this line of thinking, even if it means a top-level prospect could be added to a mix that could or should include Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle and others next season.

What Yeo is doing is keeping a close watch on the players in the locker room who are taking losing as poorly as he is and others who seem to be OK with what's going on.

"I think you always," keep an eye on that, he said. "I don't think it takes something like this. You're always doing that."

If that's the case, look for the weeding out process on this roster to begin shortly after the Wild completes this miserable season on April 7. 

Perhaps that will serve as a wake-up call, even if it's too late for this season.

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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