On Valentine’s Day 2016, Minnesota Wild fans probably felt heartbroken. For the third consecutive year, their hockey team had slumped in midseason. But this dry spell had become so extended, so desperate, that Head Coach Mike Yeo was given a pink slip instead of a red box of candy.
Eight consecutive losses. Thirteen of 14 defeats shortly after the new year. And a performance so dismal against the Boston Bruins, that even Yeo knew a change had to be made.
Fast forward a week and pretty much nothing makes sense. Out of nowhere, a four-game winning streak. Twenty-one goals, and most recently, a 6-1 dismantling of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks before more than 50,000 screaming fans in an outdoor showdown at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
The blame, a week ago, appeared to be focused on a variety of culprits. Many were convinced the players simply quit playing hard for the same coach who had led them to post-season berths for three consecutive campaigns. Some said General Manager Chuck Fletcher should have been the one out the door, since he was the guy most responsible for putting this stumbling team’s roster together. Still others felt Yeo needed to go because he had been coddling underachieving veterans while coming down hard on struggling younger players.
Whatever the reason, the future, both short- and long-term, appeared dismal at best. The team had fallen several points out of the playoff picture. Fletcher had few options for a coaching replacement, this deep into the regular season. So he handed the reins to John Torchetti, a journeyman assistant, most recently coaching the club’s minor league squad in Iowa.
Torchetti, while certainly no stranger to professional hockey, has never been a head coach in the National Hockey League. The Iowa team is in dead last in the American Hockey League. With the Wild leaving for a road trip to western Canada at the time of the change, Torchetti didn’t even get a chance to hold a practice before coaching his first game with the big club.
In their last eight games under Yeo, all losses, the Wild could muster only 18 goals. Yet Torchetti’s arrival produced immediate and amazing dividends. Five goals and a win in Vancouver. Five more in Calgary and another handful in Edmonton, again in relatively comfortable victories. But Sunday’s six spot against the first place Hawks would seem to defy logic.
Which raises the question: How could a reasonably talented team be that bad, for that long, only to become this good in seven short days?
So here is one aging former sportscaster’s attempt to explain this terrific turnaround truthfully:
1. Mike Yeo was, and still is, a good coach. But sometimes, players and coaches gradually fall off the same page. When a hockey team struggles, players feel pressure to do more. In their minds, that typically means scoring more goals. But in the coach’s mind, it’s about preventing goals instead. So the more Yeo schemed to tighten up the Wild defense, his players felt the grips on their sticks getting tighter and took more chances to put the puck in the net. The result was a troubled mess that produced neither.
2. A fresh voice is often just what the doctor ordered. Torchetti may not have had great words of wisdom. But his experience at Iowa means he did have the chance to have already built trust with the younger players, who spent time previously with him. And you can bet that the Wild veterans were eager to step up and give a good account of themselves, since they were now looked at front-and-center, as the main source for Yeo’s departure.
3. Timing can be everything. Yes, the Wild appeared hapless during their lengthy losing streak. But they also were playing some of the league’s best or hottest teams just before Yeo’s dismissal. The Islanders, Rangers, Blues, Stars, Capitals and Bruins present a virtual “Murderer’s Row” for any team in the NHL, let alone one with a fragile identity. Conversely, in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, Torchetti got his troubled team out of town just in time to skate against three sub-.500 clubs with problems of their own.
While Sunday’s win over Chicago is a much different story, it, too, had inherent advantages. The Wild was returning to the Twin Cities with newfound confidence, a couple of days off and extra incentive playing outdoors before a huge crowd and plenty of alumni they were eager to please.
4. Torchetti’s success is still a small sample size. But in this recent scoring surge, it’s becoming obvious they are playing with more confidence. They are using their speed and crashing the net, instead of laying back and playing “not to lose.” It has to be more than a coincidence that forwards such as Jason Pominville, Eric Haula and Thomas Vanek suddenly look like different players. So that much, is a tribute to the new man behind the bench.
It remains to be seen if this Wild Week will morph into a Magnificent March or an Appealing April. After all, Minnesota is currently still a couple of points out of the playoff picture.
But one thing is clear. The love affair between fans and its unpredictable hockey team, that looked so fractured on Valentine’s Day, is definitely back in full bloom. Now both are hoping the Wild “go steady” from here on out.