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New coach Mike Yeo travels to Finland to meet with Wild stars

Aug 19, 2011, 11:35 PM EDT

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There were those who thought GM Chuck Fletcher and the Minnesota Wild were taking a sizeable risk when they hired Houston Aeros headman Mike Yeo. Some thought the 37-year-old (now 38) was too young for a head coaching position in the NHL. There were those who thought he needed more seasoning since he’d only been a head coach for a single season at the AHL level. Some thought he was awful as an assistant in Pittsburgh, some thought he was too much like former coach Todd Richards, and others wondered if Minnesota hired him because he was a cheap alternative to the other available candidates.

The man has his work ahead of him if he wants to win over the skeptics.

With all of that in mind, Yeo isn’t waiting around for training camp to make his mark on next year’s team. Accompanied by GM Fletcher, Yeo recently flew to Finland to have face-to-face conversations with two of the most important players on next year’s roster: captain Mikko Koivu and goaltender Niklas Backstrom. He understands that if he wants to win over the locker room from the start, it’s essential to be on the same page with the team most important returning players.

Yeo spoke the Star Tribune about the importance of meeting his new captain face-to-face:

“Mikko is our captain. He’s a guy when it comes to the coach, he’s going to have these guys on board and going out and doing the things you want them to do. If we can make a little headway with that and hopefully get him buying into and believing in the things we’re talking about right now as opposed to a month into the season, then we’re just going to be that much further ahead.”

Koivu is under contract for the next seven seasons with a no-movement clause, so it’s doubtful he’s going anywhere any time soon. Seven years in today’s NHL for a coach is an eternity—but if Yeo wants to last for a while, it’s imperative that he has a good working relationship with his on-ice leader. If he has Koivu’s support from the beginning, it should make the transition much easier as he tries to install his new system for his new team.

Yeo understands that for the Wild to be successful next season, Koivu and Backstrom will have to lead the team on the ice, in the locker room, and on the stat sheet. Koivu tied for the team lead with 62 points last season—yet each of the other top four scorers from last season have either been traded or left via free agency (Havlat, Brunette, and Burns). Yeo and the Wild are depending on him to recapture the 71 point season from 2009-10 while continuing to be one of the best two-way centers in the league.

Similarly, Yeo will need Niklas Backstrom to be a reliable backstop for the team if they want to take the next step to the playoffs. The Finnish netminder put up good numbers with a .916 save percentage and 2.66 goals against average. If the Wild want to be successful though, they’ll need the all-star goaltender to put up great numbers. No matter how you look at it, a sub-.500 record for a goaltender isn’t going to get it done.

Yeo will have plenty of work as he attempts to silence the critics, change the team culture, and improve the meager Wild; all while he tries to meld all of the offseason newcomers with the players who are already in place. If he can get Koivu and Backstrom on his side, it’ll go a long way towards getting all 22 guys pulling on the same end of the rope. They’re only two players—but they’re two of the most important.

The next step is getting the other 20 players to buy in during training camp.

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