New coach Mike Yeo and this weekend’s NHL Draft in St. Paul were timely topics as the Wells Fargo Minnesota Wild Road Tour made its annual trek to Brainerd on Wednesday.
Wing Colton Gillies and defenseman Clayton Stoner, accompanied by former Wild player Antti Laaksonen and TV analyst Mike Greenlay, weighed in on both topics during their stop at Brainerd Area Civic Center.
Gillies played for Yeo last season when Yeo guided the Houston Aeros, the Wild’s top minor league affiliate, to a 46-28-1-5 record, and the Calder Cup Final, in his first season as a head coach.
The Aeros’ 46 wins led the Western Conference, and ranked third in the AHL. Houston did not make the playoffs in 2009-2010.
“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had,” Gillies said.
“He talks to his players,” Gillies added. “He’s fair, he gives guys chances and opportunities. He finds a way to demand a lot of his players but still makes them want to play for him. He commands respect from his players, and I think that’s the sign of a good coach.”
Stoner, who hasn’t played for Yeo, has heard nothing but positive things about him, from those who played for Yeo in Houston and from those who played for him in other organizations.
“He has a really good reputation,” Stoner said. “I think he can definitely guide us in the right direction.”
The draft begins Friday and continues Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center. Both players said the event is a reward for Wild fans.
“It will be phenomenal, they will just love it,” Gillies said. “I’m sure they will all be there, supporting it. The town will be alive. It will be a very fun atmosphere, especially for the players getting drafted.”
“I think it’s really good for the organization and the city to be able to hold it here,” Stoner said. “It’s just an exciting time of year for the Wild and other teams, to start building their future.
“Not making the playoffs last year the future is what we have right now. If we can get some really good players the next few years it’s going to help us tremendously in the long run.”
Gillies hopes next season he establishes himself as a full-time NHL player. He played 45 games for the Wild in 2008-09, with two goals and five assists. He spent the 2009-10 season, and most of last season, in Houston. Gillies played seven games for the Wild in 2010-11, scoring one goal.
“One of my goals is to make the team,” he said. “I want to establish myself as a solid role player. I want to be a shutdown guy, take up time in the offensive zone, hit guys, get the puck back, be the first to forecheck.”
Stoner played eight games for the Wild in 2009-10, collecting two assists. Last season he appeared in 57 games, with two goals and seven assists.
“First of all, as a team, definitely the playoffs is always the goal,” Stoner said. “I want to help contribute to the team winning by playing the way I can, playing tough against other teams and being a hard guy to play against. That will help our team get to the common goal of making the playoffs.”
Both were making their second Road Tour appearance, their first in Brainerd.
“The fan support in Minnesota is absolutely amazing,” Gillies said. “When you’ve got fans as awesome as Minnesota it’s a treat for us to go out and spend time with them and get to know them a little bit.”
“Last year was my first year and I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Stoner said. “It’s really classy and good for the kids. That’s who buys the tickets, that’s who you play for. We were in those shoes not too long ago. To see the excitement in kids’ eyes brings a lot of joy to all the guys doing the tour.”