Friday, June 17, 2011

Chuck Fletcher Sticks Neck Out

The Minnesota Wild have made it official: Mike Yeo is their new head coach.

The 37-year-old Yeo has an impressive track record for such a young coach, having won a Stanley Cup as an assistant in Pittsburgh, and he ran the Houston Aeros (AHL) to within two wins of the Calder Cup this year.

Mike Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune is the best in the business, and he had already made it abundantly clear that the Wild would be risking losing Yeo to another NHL team within a year or two if they didn't hire him as head coach right now.

Apparently, general manager Chuck Fletcher decided that it was not worth the risk, so he decided to take a tremendous risk.

Does that make sense?

As Russo wrote Thursday, Fletcher has more guts than a lot of people, myself included. I thought for sure that he would go the "safe" route and hire an experienced coach like former Edmonton boss Craig MacTavish or one-time Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock.

It's not that I'm a fan of retreads. I just figured that -- with the team about to get younger -- Fletcher would go with a steady, veteran coach who was willing to work and teach this young group, like Edmonton did with Tom Renney.

(Renney has done a very good job in Edmonton, I think. That's an insanely young team, and Renney has worked hard to teach and bring them along slowly, as anyone who watched the "Oil Change" series on NHL Network can attest. I don't know that they'll be ready to compete for a playoff spot this coming season, but they'll be closer.)

For Fletcher, though, it wasn't about avoiding a retread. It was about avoiding a mistake. Fletcher has two years left on his deal as general manager, and there's a very real chance that this could be the final head coaching hire he makes in Minnesota.

If Yeo succeeds, who knows how long he'll be here? He's 37, for crying out loud.

If Yeo fails, Fletcher might be out the door the same time Yeo is.

See, this isn't about Todd Richards, his job performance or his pedigree. Yeah, Richards was a younger candidate, a guy who sported zero head coaching experience when he joined the Wild. But he didn't fail because he was too young. He failed because he wasn't good enough, and he failed because Doug Risebrough scorched this organization and left Fletcher with virtually nothing to build with.

But the fact that Richards was a "no NHL head coaching experience" guy when he came aboard, and he was ushered out the door after two years with no playoff appearances, well, it left some of us assuming. And we know what happens when we assume. Doesn't mean we don't do it once in a while.

Fletcher has two years left on his deal, and it's presumed that if the Wild's new head coach doesn't get the team to the playoffs in two years, neither will come back. It would have been almost easy for Fletcher to eschew Yeo for a veteran.

Instead, Fletcher has the guts to go with the guy he thinks is the right fit.

Friday, they said all the right things. Yeo talked about the Wild playing with aggression, structure, and being smart, things they didn't always do under Richards. At times, they looked tentative, confused, and they did dumb things. For some reason, Richards ended up being a square peg, with the Wild a round hole in some sense.

Fletcher ignored Yeo's age, which is reasonable because Yeo has more coaching experience than most guys under 40. He talked about Yeo coaching a lot of the kids who will be called upon to make an impact with the Wild. No one will know better what positions to put those young players in than Yeo, who just led them to within two wins of an unexpected championship in Houston.

In the end, though, it's still quite a risk by Fletcher. He essentially took his remaining chips and pushed them all to the middle of the table. All he has in front of him now are his sunglasses and card protector.

In two years (or less), we'll have a better clue of what cards will make up the flop, turn, and river.

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