Former Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo doesn’t view himself as a “coach in waiting.”
Yeo made that clear after being hired Monday as an associate coach and the successor to St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. Hitchcock has already announced he will be leaving after the 2016-17 season, at which point Yeo becomes the Blues’ new coach next July with a three-year contract.
“Obviously the situation’s unique and I’ve heard a lot of people talking about ‘coach in waiting’ and whatnot,” Yeo said. “I’m not waiting for anything. This is a year I’m going to learn and this is a year where I’m going to do everything I can do to help the St. Louis Blues and Ken Hitchcock be successful.
“I feel pretty humbled and honored to be part of his final season. I want to help make it a special one for him.”
Those are Yeo’s sentiments, but the Blues didn’t make this decision based on a desire to make Hitchcock’s retirement year a great one. This was a move made looking to the future and the type of NHL head coach Yeo will be following his first tenure with the Wild, which ended last February after nearly five seasons in Minnesota.
“Like a lot of hockey people, I think we’re all better the second time around than we are the first time around,” Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong said of the 42-year-old Yeo. “He’s got a lot of good experience. I just think he has an understanding of today’s players. We talked about our team and our strengths and what we need to improve on. We shared a similar vision on how the game is going and how we want to get better.”
Former Yeo assistant coach Rick Wilson also was hired as an assistant coach by the Blues, who reached this conference final this spring for the first time since 2001.
Yeo was asked to describe what type of head coach Blues fans can expect once he takes over the team.
“I’m intense. I want to win,” said Yeo, who recently interviewed for the Calgary Flames and Anaheim Ducks vacant coaching positions. “I expect to win and I hate to lose, but I really think that even though I’m bringing that intensity I’m able to bring a fun atmosphere to the rink.
“I think I bring a positive energy every time I come to the rink —and I care about my players.”
No mixed messages
When asked if having Hitchcock and his replacement on the same coaching staff presents an awkward situation, Armstrong replied quickly.
“It’s incumbent upon Mike and Ken to make sure that there’s no mixed messages,” Armstrong said. “Ken is the coach. Ken is not Mike and Mike is not Ken. Mike’s here to make Ken a better coach and Ken is here to help make Mike a better coach. I don’t see there being any concern on mixed messages.”
Yeo was 173-132-44 during his five-year tenure with the Wild. Minnesota made the playoffs in three straight seasons and twice reached the conference semifinals.
“I’ve got a good amount of experience behind me, I had a decent run in Minnesota,” Yeo said. “But I’m not looking to be a decent coach. I’m looking to be a great coach and I think the opportunity to work for a guy like Hitch, to have that opportunity to learn the group before you jump into that coaching position ... I felt like this is the perfect fit and that’s why we’re so excited about it.”
Wilson worked previously as an assistant on Hitchcock’s Dallas Stars team that won the 1999 Stanley Cup. Wilson, who played for the Blues from 1974-76, will assume the defensive coaching duties held previously by former Blues assistant coach Brad Shaw.
Yeo’s previous coaching stops include time as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins and with Houston and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the American Hockey League. He was an assistant coach when the Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup title.
Armstrong said he spoke with Yeo previously about a Blues minor league coaching position with AHL Peoria, but Yeo took another job instead.
Armstrong feels a year of learning from Hitchcock and learning more about the Blues’ players and organization will benefit Yeo.
“I think he’s going to be able to have a very important role as an associate coach, but also get a good feel for the city, know how we want to run things and what our levels of expectations are in certain areas,” Armstrong said. “So when he hits the ground running on July 1 next year as head coach of the Blues, he’s going to be hitting it full stride.”
Learning from ‘Hitch’
Yeo said Hitchcock picked him up at the airport when they met in St. Louis last week and the pair talked for two hours.
“I felt I already learned a couple things I can take forward,” Yeo said. “I have a ton of respect. He’s one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game in my eyes. He’s had a lot of success wherever he’s gone, his teams are always highly competitive, so for sure there are going to be a lot of things that I want to do that are exactly the same. There are things I’ll suggest that are going to be different.
“I know exactly what my role is and I’m very comfortable in my role, and that is to help him.”
Yeo said his unique situation offers him a chance to learn under Hitchcock while also providing his own insights and opinions.
“He may have some ideas, I may have some different ideas,” Yeo said. “I will tell him what I believe every time. He might not like it. He might disagree, and if he disagrees and wants to do something else, then I’ll go out there and do exactly what he wants to do.”
Shaw and another former Blues assistant coach, Kirk Muller, declined opportunities to return to the team and instead looked for work elsewhere. Muller landed in Montreal as an associate head coach with the Canadiens while Shaw is still pursuing opportunities.
Armstrong said Wilson and former Blues defenseman Scott Stevens were the first people he called to gauge interest in becoming Shaw’s replacement. Armstrong said the discussion with Stevens lasted only one phone call, with Stevens giving an indication he was headed elsewhere.
Blues assistant coach Ray Bennett, goaltending coach Jim Corsi and video coach Sean Farrell are returning.
When Yeo takes over, he hopes to get his team playing an uptempo style similar to the one used by the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and other NHL teams.
“I want to play a speed game,” he said. “You watch the Stanley Cup and you see the pace of the game and the way you have to execute under pressure. Whenever you can dictate the pace of the game, you have an advantage over the team that you’re playing against.”