There's an adage in the National Hockey League that a General Manager doesn't know his team until Thanksgiving- that the space between Opening Night and Turkey Day (the proper one, the AMERICAN one) is meant for the assessment of the current roster and its place amongst the landscape of the other 29 teams. Things are meant to play out to a degree; strengths and weaknesses are noted, trends in game time situations identified, and a game plan moving forward to rectify the things detrimental to the team's success is materialized.
Its not Thanksgiving yet- despite the fact that there are Christmas ads everywhere, but we have reached the 20 game mark, meaning we're 1/4th of the way through the 82-game grind, with the 3-2 shootout win over the St. Louis Blues.
Let this marinate in your soul for a minute; last night's win, coupled with a spectacular trouncing of the Chicago Blackhawks by Edmonton, has put your Minnesota Wild atop not just the Northwest Division, not just the Western Conference, but the entire National Hockey League.
Think about that. So- at this point of the season, the end of the observation and assessment period, what do we hold to be true about Minnesota?
Mike Yeo Is Legit:
There was trepidation about the Yeo hire coming into the season; "Fletcher taking another chance on a guy with no previous NHL Head Coaching experience rabble rabble rabble..." All Yeo does is win ([national media jab]and have a non-functioning power play [/national media jab]) with what he has- he turned a decently-talented Houston Aeros team into a Calder Cup Finalist, and now has Minnesota, a decently-talented fusion of speed, grit, on top of the NHL heap.
Yeo pushes the right buttons, pulls the right strings, says the right things, and He disguises drills as fun scrimmages; he has shown the ability to get a team which can get a bit haywire at times (see: LA last week) and get them to reset, not just for the next game, but even in-game. He's managed to use the timeouts by other teams to Minnesota's advantage.
In short, 20 games in and roughly 4 months into his tenure here, Yeo has managed to instill his personality and will onto this team, and now has the team willing to run through walls for him.
A quick anecdote- I talked to Bryan Reynolds of Hockey Wilderness about Yeo's hiring at the Draft in July; he told me what sold him on Yeo was a brief exchange when Yeo was just starting with the Aeros. Reynolds asked him about winning the Calder Cup, and Yeo replied with a politically correct, cliche-driven answer. After the exchange ended, and went off-record, Yeo came back to him and said "goddamn right we're going to win it."
How can you not love that?
2.35 Goals a Game Is a Good Thing:
You look at this team's top 6-8 players, and on paper you'd presume that this team would have more explosive scoring potential; yet they've topped 4 goals a game just three times, twice against Columbus. Disappointing yes, but discouraging no- the frequency of these tight games has accelerated the "process", and encouraged the growth of intestinal fortitude and a calm about participating in one goal games, where the margin of error is razor-thin. Plain and simple, the tighter the game is, the better the team has gotten- even if the scoring doesn't increase exponentially, this team knows not only how to win close games, but that it doesn't panic even if they are down a goal with the clock against them.
See: Tying Goal in Edmonton with a second left. Also: last night against St. Louis.
1.95 GAA Is Even Better:
Immediately one could point to Niklas Backstrom (7-4-2, 1.97 GAA, .935%) and Josh Harding (5-1-1, 1.79 GAA, .945%) and say those two are playing out of their minds- which they are- and that inevitably there will be "regression toward the mean." While there is some truth to it, that both goaltenders are white-hot and that the chance of them sustaining those numbers all season long are somewhat slim, it goes beyond that.
Its about how everyone has not only bought into Yeo and his system, but how its executed- the willingness to block shots, and despite some paltry offensive numbers, its about how the pro-forecheck north-south philosophy not only breeds turnovers, but also puck possession and prolonged shifts in the offensive zone- the best defense there is.
Essentially, Minnesota is built to be able to grind opponents down and pounce on their mistakes (even if there is just one mistake a game) when they aren't playing great team defense in front of the two goalies, who for the time being, are playing great.
This Is A Team Effort:
This ties into the last bullet point- its a team effort so far, not only defensively, but also offensively. The Wild are getting scoring from Matt Cullen's line, Kyle Brodziak's line, and even though they are getting ripped for the lack of explosive scoring, clutch efforts from Mikko Koivu's line- 6 goals in clutch situations, 4 of them game winners.
It isn't just a one or a two line team; seemingly someone new is stepping up every night, which is key since there is still a bit of a feeling out process going on with the Big Three.
Yeo can seemingly roll all of his lines and D with full trust that they'll execute his system, and at points you can connect the dots- a good transition from the D leads into a good shift by the 3rd line, which leads to momentum that culminates with a goal from the 1st or 2nd lines.
Everybody is playing for everybody.
The Younger the Defense, The Better They Are:
Almost universally panned coming into their season because of the lack of NHL experience, the kids on the roster have shown up; and when guys like Greg Zanon, Clayton Stoner, and Marek Zidlicky (and even Marco Scandella) have gone out with injury, kids like Justin Falk, Nate Prosser, and now Kris Fredheim have stepped in almost completely seamlessly- all of whom cut their teeth under Yeo last year in Houston.
Its almost to the point where this team is better off with the kids in the lineup; which may have sealed Zanon's fate as a member of the Wild, and maybe someone else too. Now that Nick Schultz has turned his game around, he may be the only veteran leadership this blueline needs- Mike Lundin, now healthy, will get a chance to play, but do you really want to mess with a good thing?
1st Place Isn't Good Enough:
Despite a big win, a dominating effort, first place in the Division, or now the role of Top Dog in the League, the message remains the same; That this is a "process", and that this team isn't a finished product in spite of its success. There is work to do, and that it can't afford to rest on its laurels; there is work to do. Yeo's done a great job not only just saying this to the media, but to the team as well, and it shows on the ice and in the players' reactions afterwards.
Its not just lip service, its well, looking legitimate. This much we know.