A Pipeline Of Success
Wednesday, 01.25.2012 / 2:49 PM / Features
By Natalie Dillon - Wild.com Contributor
On December 16, winger Jarod Palmer sat at home in Houston eating a pregame meal. That night, the Houston Aeros would take on American Hockey League rival, the Texas Stars.
But as he focused on the game ahead, Palmer knew his plans could change. With the heap of Minnesota Wild injuries mounting higher by the day, he was well aware that the team might need to recall another player.
“In the back of my mind, I was sitting around hoping – just hoping – that something good would happen,” Palmer said. And as he finished his plate, something did. The phone rang.
On the other end, Minnesota Wild Assistant to the General Manager Jim Mill spoke quickly. “Palms, pack your bags,” Palmer remembered him saying. “Congratulations. I’ll see you in a day.”
In a whirlwind evening, Palmer packed, took off from the Houston airport, and landed in his home state of Minnesota. The following day, he found himself warming up for his first career NHL game as the Minnesota Wild hosted the New York Islanders.
“I remember coming out of the tunnel and seeing the fans and thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the NHL,’” Palmer explained. “The crowd was alive.”
The night that is burned into Palmer’s memory is common in NHL hockey. When players get injured or don’t perform, management often dips into the team’s AHL affiliate to fill those vacant spots. The Wild especially has seen no shortage of roster moves this season, making Palmer one of many to make the non-stop flight from Houston to the Twin Cities.
As of the All-Star break, Minnesota had used the most players (37) and the most rookies (12) of any organization in the NHL, in large part due to the mass of injuries plaguing the team. Just four skaters had played in every game through January 25. The Wild had already used 16 players from last year’s Aeros team that made a run to the Calder Cup finals. But while a lengthy list of names on the injury report has the potential to break a team, those players have been major factors in the Wild gaining the eighth spot in the West heading into the break.
In the last two wins before the break, the Wild’s game-winners were scored by Chad Rau and Carson McMillan; two players who were recalled the prior week.
A Clear Message
When players from Houston pull on the Minnesota Wild sweater, they know what’s expected of them. Using the same system the Aeros work down in Houston – and the same head coach in Mike Yeo that led the Aeros to the Calder Cup Finals last year – the Wild offers call-ups a chance to succeed with a game they already know.
When Palmer sat down with Assistant Coach Darryl Sydor to talk systems before his NHL debut, the familiarity put his mind at ease.
“I’m looking at him thinking, ‘I know this stuff,’” Palmer remembered. “It allowed me to focus a lot more on my energy and keeping it simple.”
And it didn’t hurt having the coach he’d played under all of last year out on the bench.
“It’s a good feeling having [Yeo] back there,” said Palmer, who is currently recovering from a concussion suffered when he scored his frist NHL goal. “I know what he expects. That helped me focus on what I need to do to meet his expectations. He doesn’t ask you to go out there and do things that you’re not used to doing.”
Casey Wellman has played for Houston and Minnesota over the course of three seasons. He said jumping into the Wild lineup is easier this year due to the consistency between the two teams.
“Last year the systems were a little different, so you had to come up and learn everything again,” Wellman said. “This year, you know what you’re doing and where to go. It makes it for an easy transition.”
“You have all six or eight coaches [in Houston and Minnesota] speaking the same language to the players on a daily basis,” Mill explained. “That’s been the goal all along, and it’s working.”
Jared Spurgeon, Nate Prosser, Marco Scandella, Casey Wellman, Warren Peters and Justin Falk are just a handful of last year’s Aeros that have made major NHL contributions this year.
When the Wild turned to goaltender Matt Hackett to replace an injured Josh Harding less than two-minutes into a high-pressure game at San Jose on Dec. 6, the rookie did more than fill in. He stopped all 34 shots faced, helping the Wild to a 2-1 victory. After, he was named the NHL’s Second Star of the Week.
One of the biggest challenges recalled players can face is finding a way to deflect the immense pressure NHL games bring. But fortunately for many Aeros, they’ve dealt with that kind of pressure before.
Last year’s run to the Calder Cup Finals introduced players to the kind of speed and intensity they’d meet in the NHL.
“Every single one of those guys played 24 postseason games,” Mill explained.
Because the Aeros had success last year – falling only in game six of the finals – they learned what it takes to win in high-pressure situations.
“It’s almost like they’ve experienced this before,” Mill said. “So I think they have a lot of confidence when they get here.”
The Wild brass has confidence in them, too. Even players who have had little NHL experience will see ice time in key moments with the Wild.
“A top-six forward from Houston will be playing top-six minutes in Minnesota,” said Mill.
That’s what Wellman saw during his time here, and he said he felt confident during his first game with the Wild this year.
“I felt like part of the team,” he said. “I wasn’t too nervous; I just wanted to go play.”
A Winning Culture
The mutual success of the Wild and the Aeros is no accident. It’s all part of the winning culture Wild coaches and management are striving to build.
Mill said the Wild is not just developing young players; it’s developing winners. Because that’s ultimately the goal: to win.
“You’re developing a culture of winning so that’s what they’re accustomed to and that’s what they demand of themselves,” he explained.
Mill said that mentality was started by Mike Yeo and the staff in Houston last year, and it’s being reinforced by John Torchetti and the coaching staff in Houston this year.
“It’s been a seamless transition,” he said.
Yeo trusts the players, and the players believe in the system, Mill said.
“We had so much success in Houston last year, and that success is contagious. When you have players and coaches trusting one another – and winning – you have the best chance of continuing great success,” he said.