Dean Evason has pressed the right buttons since taking over the Minnesota Wild on Valentine’s Day 2019. With a 99-62-30 record (0.662 point percentage), his tenure at St. Paul has been quite successful so far. As Evason continues to strive for playoff success, all signs are showing the Minnesota Wild is building something special.
At the end of last week, Bill Guerin acknowledged the position his team is in. He rewarded the coaching staff’s efforts with everyone from Evason to assistant coaches Bob Woods, Darby Hendrickson, Brett McLean and goaltender coach Frederic Chabot, all receiving contract extensions. Evason first took over on an interim basis. But he was lucky to stay a little longer after seeing Kevin Fiala’s meteoric rise before the shutdown and a competitive performance against the Vancouver Canucks when the league returned to play.
But Evason’s tenure has been anything but conventional since then. The league shutdown and the Edmonton bubble were taxing for any coach, let alone a caretaker. Then the NHL went into a weird divisional format just last year. The Wild moved to the West Division, despite being east (albeit by mere blocks) of the Mississippi River. Sill, the team endured long car trips away from home, COVID protocols, and more, while battling in a very heavy division.
Still, the Evason team have seen success. That continued this season as the Wild rocketed to the top of the Central Division and ultimately the league in early December. Evason didn’t have to worry about the long losing streaks that plagued former franchise coaches. Until December, his Wild hadn’t even lost three in a row. But now, after laying an egg in the NHL’s biggest regular season showcase on national television, they’re on a five-game losing streak.
The Wild endured the perfect storm before the Winter Classic. The postponement of the games that preceded it resulted in an abundance of rust that players had to get rid of. The freezing temperatures and harsh ice conditions weren’t going to help a losing team break out of their bad habits. Minnesota have also faced injury or illness from their top center and top two defensemen. It all combined to make the Winter Classic more memorable for the ambiance and warm Minnesota fans in attendance, than, say, Kirill Kaprizov’s three-point night.
But there was more to it than just falling flat because of conditions or circumstances. Dean Evason’s Wild failed to solve Craig Berube’s St. Louis Blues.
Since Evason took power, only three teams have a point percentage above 0.500 against the Wild. The Colorado Avalanche and the Vegas Golden Knights are on the list at .722 and .550 pts, respectively. However, the Blues hold a dominating percentage of 0.850 pts, a record of 8-1-1. They snatched 17 out of a possible 20 points during that time. That’s just a point below the 18 of 20 Evason’s Wild taken from the Arizona Coyotes. It’s not great when a division rival can make you look like the Coyotes every night. Just ask the Coyotes.
The Blues aren’t the same team that Mike Yeo’s Wild tamed in the first round of the 2015 playoffs. They aren’t the same slow, heavy squad that needed their goalie to steal a series in 2017. That team de St. Louis is a long way off defensively from the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2019. Unlike those teams, today’s Blues are thriving. with an offending identity. With 3.41 goals per hour, St. Louis is not far behind the Wild in the league standings in goals scored.
However, the Wild still play in St. Louis like they’re reading old scout reports. The Winter Classic was a perfect example. By their admission, the Wild did not play with urgency and tried to outdo a fairly skilled Blues team. “We haven’t simplified our game”, Evason said after the game. “We’re trying to play east-west. Certainly, in this type of setting, that could not happen. The 6-4 loss at Target Field was just a microcosm of the problems they had against St. Louis. The Blues have now beaten Minnesota 29-19 in the last 10 games.
Instead, they let Jordan Kyrou and Vladimir Tarasenko own the night. Kyrou is quick, skillful and part of what makes this Blues team a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. Last year, Minnesota faced Colorado and Vegas as the West’s top threats. Unless the Wild resolve their struggles against St. Louis, another team is firmly hampered by any Stanley Cup run.
Evason’s time as head coach of the Wild has been fairly easy so far. Whatever the terms of his new contract (they have yet to be released), this losing five-game slippage is the most difficult challenge he has faced since taking office. The difference between Evason and Yeo and Bruce Boudreau is a strong leadership group of players and two highly skilled players able to pull the team out of this rut. Now that he has signed on the dotted line, he will have to prove that he can do it. Time will tell if he’s the guy who runs the franchise in the future or not. Finding a way to beat St. Louis would go a long way in proving that.
Statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick & Evolving-Hockey.