ST. PAUL, Minn. Players-only, closed-door meetings are usually reserved for teams mired in deep slumps looking to find cohesiveness and a spark needed to turn a season around. Line changes, call-ups and trades are an organization's attempts at shaking a roster awake.
The Minnesota Wild have done all of the above three weeks into a season filled with immense expectations. Urgency in this lockout-shortened, 48-game season is paramount, but a 4-5-1 record leaves Minnesota walking the line between urgency and panic.
Frustration was high in the locker room after the Wild's 4-1 Thursday loss to the Northwest Division-leading Canucks, the third straight defeat for a team with championship aspirations. Second-year Minnesota coach Mike Yeo took to the podium later after a lengthy delay and chose not to rip into his team as he did so often during last year's slide from league-best record in December to out of the playoff chase by spring.
Yeo put his psychologist hat on and put his players on the couch.
"We all feel pressure," he said. "We put pressure on ourselves. We want to win. You could argue that we could have won a couple games earlier and then we'd be feeling great, but you know what? The reality is then we would have faced adversity later. We're facing our adversity now. I don't think that that's a terrible thing, to be honest with you. I really don't."
With a lineup bolstered by star additions and prized rookies, Yeo is sending the right message 10 games into a season that started with little preparation time to bring all these new pieces together. The Wild understand they are facing a critical time because this lockout-shortened season will be over with as fast as it started. Urgency is needed. Panic is to be avoided.
"You have to show a sense of urgency," said defenseman Ryan Suter, one of the Wild's two 13-year, 98 million offseason additions, before Thursday's loss. "There's a difference between being urgent and being prepared, and panicking. For us, we can't panic. We haven't played that great all year. We haven't scored a lot of goals. I think we know that if we start scoring goals and playing 60 minutes the way we want, then we're going to be successful."
Truth is, some adjustment should have been expected. Though adding Suter and Zach Parise, the two free-agent prizes of the offseason, garnered the spotlight, those players were only part of an offseason overhaul. The Wild also signed free-agent forwards Torrey Mitchell and Zenon Konopka. Wunderkind prospect Mikael Granlund turned pro and made the roster out of training camp. Pierre-Marc Bouchard, limited for three seasons because of concussion issues, returned. Since the season started, Minnesota has called up two more top prospects, Jonas Brodin and Charlie Coyle, and traded for veteran forward Mike Rupp.
Of the 18 skaters in the lineup Thursday night against Vancouver, only eight played in the season finale last April. Rewind to a year ago, and Minnesota's lineup included only six skaters who were active against the Canucks this week.
Yeo has tried to send a message to his team by changing lines. Granlund was a healthy scratch for the first time Thursday after being demoted to the fourth line in Sunday's game. Veteran forward Devin Setoguchi, who started the year with the second line, played his second straight game on the fourth line.
But Yeo, even after Thursday's disappointing loss, recognized the obvious: Patience is the ultimate solution.
"We faced (adversity) last year, and we didn't do a very good job," Yeo said after Thursday's game. "Needless to say, obviously we had a lot of injuries, but this is a different group. That's one thing to remember. This is a different group than last year and this is a group that I have full confidence in that we'll pull out of this."
Three straight losses in a shortened schedule creates the illusion that the season hangs in the balance. Suter says he can feel the anxiety growing in the dressing room. Defenseman Tom Gilbert says players are pressing. Parise is flummoxed by Thursday's performance and says he doesn't have answers.
It all sounds very doom-and-gloomy, but Minnesota set those sky-high expectations last summer when it signed Parise and Suter. On opening night, led by Parise, the Wild won 4-2 against the Colorado Avalanche. Since then, they've scored 15 goals in nine games.
Yet the Wild have nine points and are just two points out of a playoff spot. Only a week ago, Minnesota was riding high after giving the Western Conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks their first loss of the season and was leading the Northwest Division. Three games later, has everything really changed that much?Listen to Yeo because he's right.
"We have guys that are struggling right now, guys that are pressing and squeezing their stick and confidence is down," he said Thursday. "To me, it's 10 games, no training camp, no exhibition games, it's a clean slate for those guys right now. Clean slate because you know the more you press, the more you squeeze your stick, the cuter you try to get, the more you try to force things, all the things that it takes to score goals, believe it or not, you start to hurt yourself."And that's the last thing the Wild need right now. There's too much talent on hand for any of this to last much longer and, really, it hasn't lasted all that long so far.
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