The Minnesota Wild looked like a team that would be difficult to contend with after a hot November which saw them contending for the lead in the Central Division, firmly in the Western Conference playoff picture and playing some of the most flawless hockey in the franchise history. But with the December schedule loaded with more games vs. their Western Conference rivals it looked as though the Wild would have to find an extra gear during the month.
They didn't find that gear. The Wild won four times during December. They lost ten times including losing streaks of four and currently, six straight games. They sit in 5th place in the Central Division and in 10th place in the Western Conference as 2014 begins. Head coach Mike Yeo is squarely on the hot seat.
So what's happening with the Wild? Injuries, while always present, haven't been as numerous or as serious as in past years. Star forward Zach Parise gamely tried to play through a foot injury after blocking a shot in a game but clearly he needs time for that injury to heal properly. Emerging #1 goaltender Josh Harding; a terrific story early in the season playing at such a high level while having Multiple Sclerosis, was placed on Injured Reserve to have his treatment for MS evaluated and adjusted but he's back on the ice.
So if injuries aren't the main factor in the team's month-long slide what's going on? More and more as days pass by it becomes clearer that the players and their head coach, Mike Yeo, are reaching (if they have not reached) a point of no return. After a New Years Eve loss to the injury-depleted St. Louis Blues Yeo revealed to the local press that he has stopped addressing the team after games. This revelation is a big red flag that Wild players have tuned Yeo out. He's lost the locker room and the respect of the players and when that happens its only a matter of time until the head coach is on his way out.
General Manager Chuck Fletcher has hired two first-time NHL head coaches during his time as Wild GM. Todd Richards lasted two seasons. Then, rather than bringing a veteran coach on board Fletcher instead promoted Yeo who, to be fair, had done a terrific job as the head coach of the Wild's AHL team in Houston. The Wild stormed out of the gate in Yeo's first season, 2011-2012, leading the NHL standings in points at Christmas time. Injuries mounted, however, and Yeo had no answers as the Wild free-fell from leading the NHL in points to an 11th place finish in the Western Conference by season's end.
The 2013-2014 season is starting to have a similar look and feel to that 2011-2012 season only this time injuries really cannot be blamed. If a coaching change is coming; and it likely is, look for it to happen this week. Fletcher probably won't be hiring another first-time NHL coach again. In terms of a possible replacement for Yeo the name that keeps coming up is Peter Laviolette, a native New Englander who coached the 2005-2006 Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup win and led the 2009-2010 Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals where they lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Wild have home games against Buffalo (Jan. 2) and Washington (Jan. 4) coming up before they go out west to face the LA Kings (Jan. 7) and the Phoenix Coyotes (Jan. 9) next week.