The last 12 games for the Minnesota Wild saw the team move from one end to the other on the spectrum of the NHL’s Western Conference.
They struggled mightily over the course of two weeks in which they lost 6 consecutive games while being outscored by a margin of 27-13. The injury bug hit hard as they were forced to place superstar forward Zach Parise on injured reserve because of a lingering foot injury and also shut down goalie Josh Harding, a potential Vezina candidate and team MVP during the first half of the season, due to what is believed to be complications with his treatment of multiple sclerosis.
With these players on the mend, and head coach Mike Yeo on the hot seat, the Wild rattled off 4 important victories in a row to ring in 2014 and have won 5 of their last 7 games to remain in the playoff race in the difficult Western Conference. Unfortunately, they took another blow in the process as they lost underrated two-way center and leading point scorer Mikko Koivu for an extended period of time due to a broken foot.
The Wild are now faced with a tough task in the upcoming weeks. Without these players, they will need to rely heavily on a number of highly touted youngsters who now have some big skates to fill. It will be up to players such as playmaking center Mikael Granlund and gritty power forward Charlie Coyle to play years beyond their age in order to remain in sole possession of the 8th and final spot in the grueling Western Conference playoff race.
If the last seven contests are any indication of what the near future may hold, the kids don’t seem worried about the task at hand. Following the rash of injuries, they have already received significant contributions from Nino Niederreiter and an unexpected hat trick from versatile winger Justin Fontaine. The front office and coaches has raved about this crop of players from the beginning of the year and it’s time to see whether the talk was real or simply an over-estimation of the talent they possess.
The tenure of head coach Mike Yeo will also be defined by what happens in the next several weeks. If the Wild drop off the cliff and plummet to the cellar of the West, it will most likely spell the end of his time in Minnesota. General Manager Chuck Fletcher brought in Yeo, the former coach of the Wild’s AHL affiliate Houston Aeros (now the Iowa Wild), because of his familiarity and ability to connect with a young cast of players. If he is unable to deal with the adversity and the squad misses the playoffs, the Wild will likely be hosting interviews for a new head coach this April. On the other hand, he will be revered as the coach of the future if the team is capable of climbing the ladder and stealing some wins. In a contract year, Mike Yeo can no longer afford mediocrity from his team.
Adversity can do many different things to a hockey team full of youth such as the Minnesota Wild. Fans of the franchise should pay close attention to the next month of hockey leading up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Many of the developing players will either emerge as the core of the future, or shy away from the spotlight given a more prominent role.