Flyers interim head coach Mike Yeo has had a front-row seat to watch this movie before. Twice.
The plot: A head coach fired in midseason after his team failed to live up to expectations. In this instance, the main character is former Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault, whom general manager Chuck Fletcher relieved on Monday after the team dropped eight consecutive games and fell to 8-10-4 this season.
But for two other clubs within the last six years, Yeo played the role of axed head coach.
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Fifty-five games into Yeo’s fifth season as head coach of the Minnesota Wild in 2016, then-general manager Fletcher fired Yeo with the team on an eight-game skid. Three years ago, Yeo was on the chopping block again when he was released from his head coaching role with the St. Louis Blues after the club dropped 12 of the first 19 games in 2018-19.
What did Yeo learn from those experiences?
“I learned that it [stinks],” he said.
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong replaced Yeo with former Flyers coach Craig Berube, who dug the team out of despair and led the Blues to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Now, Yeo has an opportunity from the other side, aiming to redirect the Flyers’ free fall.
“Since my last head coaching opportunity, I’ve had a couple years to reflect,” Yeo said. “I would say I have a different perspective in many areas, but I also have a lot of belief in some of the things I think that I’m strong at. This is an opportunity to prove that I’ve grown and I fully believe that I am ready for that.”
While Yeo has experienced his share of failure throughout his career, he also has played integral roles on successful teams. His first taste of triumph came when he won the Stanley Cup in 2009 as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins under then-head coach Dan Bylsma, who replaced Michel Therrien at midseason.
The opportunity didn’t come to fruition overnight — Yeo joined the organization as an assistant coach for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at the turn of the century and worked his way up to assistant coach with the big club in 2005. Over the course of his career as a Penguins assistant, Yeo guided the special teams. In 2006-07, the Penguins’ power play finished fifth in the league with a 20.3% success rate.
In June 2010, Yeo left Pittsburgh to take his first head coaching gig with the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League, then the affiliate of the Wild. After reaching the Calder Cup Finals in his first season, Yeo was named the head coach of the Wild just a year after joining the Aeros.
Flyers player development coach Nick Schultz, who played 10 of his 15 NHL seasons with the Wild, was struck by Yeo’s attention to detail when the coach first arrived for the 2011-12 season.
“Young guys come in, they want to make an impression and establish that it’s their team,” Schultz said. “So I just remember him coming in, he was very detailed and very, very focused and I think as a team, it’s good to have that. It’s good to have a leader like that, that guys, you look up to, you respect. I think he commands that of the room.”
One of the key messages Yeo preached to Schultz and the Wild was the importance of strong play without the puck.
“That’s his same message now with these guys here,” Schultz said. “But that’s the way the game’s played, right? You need the puck and if you don’t have it, you’ve got to be positionally sound and willing to work to get it back and play the right way and you get the puck, you make plays and support each other and try to control the game that way.”
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Despite a disappointing first season with the Wild in which the team went 35-36-11, Yeo bounced back in 2012-13 and led the Wild to their first postseason appearance in five years. The Wild would go on to make the playoffs the next two seasons under Yeo until he was fired on Feb. 13, 2016.
The following season, Yeo became an assistant coach with the Blues and was scheduled to succeed Ken Hitchcock for the 2017-18 season. But after Hitchcock’s Blues started 24-25-1, Armstrong fired Hitchcock and replaced him with Yeo. Over the remainder of the season, Yeo helped the Blues achieve a 22-8-2 record, clinching a playoff spot and ultimately losing in the second round to the Nashville Predators.
Now, Yeo views his beginnings in St. Louis as a window into his potential to help the Flyers completely turn their season around.
“I have experience in St. Louis, which I think could help this year in terms of I was an assistant coach, took over that year and we were able to get things going in the right direction,” Yeo said. “Get guys feeling good about themselves, build a game that we were able to take into the playoffs, win a playoff round. I think I can lean back on that experience.”
On May 6, 2019, the Flyers announced that they hired Yeo to join Vigneault’s coaching staff as an assistant. Yeo would oversee the penalty kill, a unit that finished second-to-last in the league (73.05%) in 2020-21. For the first 20 games of the season, the Flyers’ penalty kill was one of the few positives throughout a generally drab start, ranking 12th in the league at 84.6%.
But beyond the early success of the penalty kill this season, captain Claude Giroux said the players have taken well to Yeo since he arrived in 2019.
“He’s a guy you want to play for,” Giroux said. “Any time we have meetings with him or he talks to us, you can see the players really, really listen. You want to be involved with a guy like Mike Yeo.”
With the Flyers toiling at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division and in the midst of a 10-game losing streak, Yeo has a lot of digging to do if he wants to help the team vie for the playoffs. But by learning from his past coaching experiences, Yeo said he’s prepared for another chance at the helm of an NHL team.
“For me, in my opinion, my best days are yet to come,” Yeo said. “Again, this is a very difficult time. It’s emotional, yet this is an unbelievable opportunity. That’s what all the players in the room have, is an unbelievable opportunity to turn this around.
“This is not a very good story right now, this season. The nice thing is we have the opportunity to change that, so let’s get to work.”