Mike Yeo, Wild telling a winning story
LOS ANGELES -- At some point during training camp, rookie head coach Mike Yeo suggested to his players that it was time to give the Minnesota Wild fans not just a different story, but a good story.
Little did Yeo know that a third of the way through the NHL season, the story he suggested would turn out to be like a fairy tale.
In the face of skepticism from people believing that the Wild would be the same gray, faceless bunch that have meandered in the NHL wilderness for most of their existence, Yeo's hardy band of worker bees have surged to the very top of the standings.
With 43 points and 20 wins, this is the farthest into the season that the Wild have occupied first place in the league. They also have the most wins in one-goal games this season -- they are 11-2-3 overall in one-goal games -- and are an impressive 9-5-0 when trailing after one period. Only four teams since the lockout have posted a winning record when trailing after the first.
When Yeo talks about his team telling a story, he is really talking about identity.
That was the buzzword during training camp.
The team didn't set any goals in terms of points in the standings.
"We were completely focused on building our identity and establishing our culture," Yeo told ESPN.com.
The upbeat head coach who was part of the coaching staff in Pittsburgh as the Penguins evolved from doormats to Stanley Cup champs insisted you can draw a distinct line from that identity to the standings.
"I absolutely believe the culture has given us a chance to be where we're at right now," Yeo said.
The Wild are a beguiling mix of the anonymous and the underrated. They are the epitome of the power of a collective will. In the midst of a 12-3 run that included a franchise-record seven-game road winning streak, the Wild boast just one player with 10 goals.
Is it captain Mikko Koivu? No.
Two-time 50-goal man Dany Heatley? No.
Young sniper Devin Setoguchi? No.
In fact, it's seventh-round draft pick Kyle Brodziak who, like so many on this roster, was given a chance by Yeo and seized the moment.
"It's been fun," the 27-year-old Brodziak said. "Just winning in general is fun. "We're only a third of the way through the season. But yeah, to this point it has been a good story. But I think everyone in here realizes why it has been a good story. ... I think it's just the way we play. Everyone's expected to do the same things. If you do what you're supposed to do, you know everyone else is doing what they're supposed to do; the accountability level is pretty high in the group."
Along with Winnipeg, the Wild have used more players (32) than any other team in the NHL thanks to a carousel of injuries that struck key offensive players like Setoguchi, veteran defensemen Marek Zidlicky and both of their talented netminders, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding.
And yet the team has greeted each new challenge with a shrug of their collective shoulders and continued to pile up points at an unprecedented pace.
There was no better example of this than last week when Harding took a shot to the head area early in a road game against San Jose. With Backstrom already sidelined due to injury, rookie Matt Hackett came in and stoned the Sharks the rest of the way to preserve a 2-1 victory and earn his first NHL win.
Hackett earned the start in the Wild's next game and turned aside 42 shots en route to a 4-2 win in Los Angeles.
Recently fired Kings head coach Terry Murray said there is a fine line that separates so many teams in this league. The Wild, he noted, had scored only a handful more goals than the Kings, had fewer shots on net and yet were in first place and enjoying tremendous success.
"Minnesota is the No. 1 team in the league right now," Murray said. "They're a good team with good balance. But they work hard. They're intense and their attitude is right."
For a team that has missed the playoffs seven of 10 years since coming into the league, including the past three seasons, there have been lots of pledges of "new" and "better" and "improved." While fan interest remains high, this is a sophisticated hockey market and their patience has been stretched as thin as one would want.
These first months of the season have given the fan base something to hang onto that hasn't been present for a long time: hope.
"It's been a really good run," owner Craig Leipold told ESPN.com. "A really good run. Our players are playing really well. They've taken to the system of Mike Yeo and I think he's done a great job of communicating what's expected of them and motivating the players and getting them ready for the games. It's only one-third of the season but I like where we are."
Has Leipold seen a connection between the fans and this first-place squad?
"Absolutely," he said. "Minnesota fans understand hockey really well. They know when the players are putting out 100-percent effort and they know when the players are working hard and when they're playing the system, and there's no question our team has really done that."
The season is neither young nor old and spring and the playoffs seem a long way off. But for a team that hungers for a taste of the postseason, it's hard not to think to what might be.
"Yeah," Leipold said. "You do, of course. We're in a good position right now, but we also know it's a long ways. There's going to be some ups and downs and there's going to be some losses that we're going to take but at least we're in a good spot now that if we do have some losses we can take them and still be in a good position."
In the hotel lobby prior to a recent game against Los Angeles, the Wild players gathered around a group of couches and tables to complete a card game started on their trip from San Jose. There is good-natured whooping and hollering.
"Looks like the guys are having fun," Yeo said.
Funny how being the top team in the NHL will do that for you. But as a coach, the challenges never end, do they? Yeo's first challenge was to get players to buy in, to make changes to facilitate a change in fortune.
When you win, and especially when you win unexpectedly, well, the challenge is to keep the players grounded and guard against complacency.
Yeo reads and listens to how his players have responded to this unexpected showering of praise and attention and has been mightily pleased at how grounded they appear.
"Well, obviously it's a good feeling to be a part of a winning team," offered Koivu, the long-suffering captain who joined the team after the lockout. "It's a lot more fun but, at the same time, it's still 30 games in; a lot of games to go. But we should be confident right now and we should feel good about ourselves. But at the same time, we have to recognize how we get success and keep it up and work as a unit. That's what brings us the wins right now."
Hey, the Wild aren't exactly following in the footsteps of the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens. They're going to lose some games. And Yeo knows there are going to be lots of folks waiting for the proverbial bubble to burst.
"It's going to happen. There's going to be a period where we lose three games, we might lose four or five," he said.
And there will be skeptics who say, "Oh, there they are, that's the real Wild," he acknowledged.
But Yeo is in no hurry to get to that point, and neither, it appears, are his players.
"No, no hurry," Yeo said. "I want them to be proud of what we've done up until now."
The Wild currently rank 24nd in goals per game (2.45) and 15th on the power play, although Yeo is confident he's seeing improvement in both areas. The power play has been a little better in recent games and he likes that the team has scored some more gritty goals, going to the net and jamming home loose pucks. Since Nov. 28, the Wild have averaged 3.43 goals per game, sixth in the NHL.
We've known veteran Wild forward Matt Cullen a long time.
Watching him and the rest of the Wild play reminds us of a conversation we had with Cullen during the 2005-06 season in Raleigh. The Canes had broken out in that first post-lockout season and were tearing up the league. Cullen talked about a chat he had with old friend Bret Hedican, who'd signed with the Canes, and how Cullen had insisted Hedican wouldn't regret the move because there was something special about the group.
The two Minnesota boys hoisted a Cup together that spring.
Earlier this week, Cullen told us he was talking to his dad -- who, naturally, watches all of the Wild games -- and they were talking about some of the parallels between that Canes team and what the Wild were achieving early in this season.
"There are a lot of similarities in the way that we've played, the way that we've won games," Cullen told ESPN.com. "It reminds me a lot of that year in the way that it's so much fun to come to the rink every day. We've had a lot of injuries, but we've had a lot of guys stepping in seamlessly."
Cullen said his current team, much like the Cup-winning Carolina team he played on, is pleased about their success but hasn't let it affect their preparation.
"We've done a pretty good job of keeping everything in perspective," Cullen said. "We haven't done anything yet. But it's fun."
It is a pretty good story, so far.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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