Before the season, there was not a single “expert” that listed the Minnesota Wild in the playoff hunt. Many had them as the last place team in the entire NHL. Imagine that for a second. A team boasting Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, and Niklas Backstrom was picked, more times than not, to finish dead last in the NHL. The comments thrown around were “worst defense in the league,” “Heatley isn’t who he used to be,” “Koivu isn’t a true top center,” and “Backstrom is a product of Lemaire’s system.” Add to all of this, a rookie head coach in Mike Yeo, instituting a new system for the second time in three years, and it was clear no one felt the Wild had a chance.
Hey, at least the first overall pick is a great consolation prize, right? Tell that to the guy writing checks to the players, and to the fans paying to get in the door.
Fast forward to today, and you see the Minnesota Wild in first place (yes really) in the NHL, and all of the so called experts scratching their heads in bemusement. How to explain this? Where did this team come from? How could such a terrible team possibly be leading the league?
Two words: buy-in.
The Wild players have bought into what is commonly referred to as the “Church of Yeo.” The system he has installed is one that wears down opponents, makes them pay for every inch, and eventually it causes the opposition to make mistakes. Those mistakes turn into scoring chances, and scoring chances turn into goals.
While some in the Edmonton press believe the Wild still play a “passive 1-4 forecheck,” that simply is not the case. The Wild’s forecheck is the key to the system, as the Wild attempt to chip the puck behind the defenders, and then drive them deep into the boards, beat them to the puck, drawn an obstruction penalty, or simply cause them to cough up the puck by making a mistake. Rarely are there fewer than two players forechecking, unless possession clearly belongs to the opposition.
Yes, the system preaches solid defensive play as well. If the other team is breaking out, why send two guys and get beat with a single pass? That would be stupid hockey. Also know as: Todd Richards hockey.
The Wild have more wins when trailing after the first than losses. They have more come from behind wins than any team in the NHL. They have more third period come from behind victories than any team in the NHL. Why? To answer that is to answer if this team is for real.
The system works. It doesn’t always work in the first period, but it works. It takes a few minutes to wear down professional athletes. When you accomplish that task, however, it works better than anything else out there.
Now, with the Wild leading the pack, the naysayers cry foul. They say that the goaltending of Backstrom and Josh Harding is “unsustainable,” that the Wild will “regress to the mean” the same way the Colorado Avalanche did last year, and the Dallas Stars the year before. The numbers say the Wild shouldn’t be where they are. The standings say it doesn’t matter.
The Minnesota Wild are tops in the league on December 1st. According to Wild PR research, no team in the past 30 years has been first in the league this late and missed the playoffs. Those are pretty good odds. While the stats might say one thing, the research says another. Stats say the Wild Wild aren’t very good. The win loss columns say otherwise, and the history of the league says they are a playoff team. You know what wins in the playoffs? Defense and goaltending. Coincidentally, exactly what got the Wild to this point.
Let the naysayers naysay. The Church of Yeo is in session.
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