I know many don’t go into the Wild dedicated thread so might not have seen this.
Dean Evason sounded as exasperated as he ever has following Sunday’s loss in Detroit, the Minnesota Wild’s seventh straight defeat.
His team was running out of answers. So was he.
“We’ve got to change something,” he said.
In the end, the change was Evason.
The Wild fired Evason on Monday afternoon, hoping to provide a jolt to a club that has lost 13 of its past 16 games, nose-diving to near the bottom of the NHL standings. Assistant coach Bob Woods was also dismissed. Woods, in his seventh season in Minnesota, was in charge of the defense and a penalty kill that ranked last in the NHL, having allowed 23 goals.
Evason, who replaced the fired Bruce Boudreau late in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, finishes with a 147-77-27 record in parts of five seasons with the Wild — a .639 points percentage that is sixth-best amongst active coaches with more than 200 NHL games coached. He was 8-15 during the playoffs, losing in the first round for three straight years and once in the Edmonton bubble’s qualifying round after having the interim tag shed.
The Wild blew series leads in all four of his postseasons.
Evason has one more year left on his contract (through 2024-25) at a little less than $2 million.
While the Wild have not yet named a successor with the St. Louis Blues coming to town Tuesday night, multiple league sources say John Hynes, the former New Jersey Devils and Nashville Predators coach, will replace Evason and become the seventh coach in Wild history. He was let go a month after the Predators’ 2022-23 season ended with one year left on his contract, also at a shade less than $2 million.
He was a logical replacement. Wild team president and general manager Bill Guerin was Hynes’ GM for a large portion of when Hynes coached Wilkes-Barre, and Guerin’s senior adviser, Ray Shero, was New Jersey’s GM when the Devils hired him.
John Hynes 101: A crash course on the Predators’ new coach
In 602 NHL games over nine seasons with the Devils and Predators, Hynes is 284-255-63 (.524 points percentage) with a 4-15 playoff record and no rounds won. In the AHL, he was 231-126-27 in the regular season with a 33-31 playoff record and two trips to the conference final, and he was once the league’s coach of the year.
This whole scenario seemed unlikely as the Wild entered the season, despite the lack of playoff success. After all, Guerin said in May that Evason was coaching with one hand tied behind his back due to the $12.7 million in dead cap hits last season for buying out Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. For Evason to lead Minnesota to back-to-back 100-point seasons despite that was certainly an accomplishment.
And if the buyouts were a hindrance last season, this season’s $14.7 million in dead cap hits made things even more difficult.
Even as of last week, with the Wild reeling, Guerin gave Evason a public vote of confidence in a Nov. 19 interview with The Athletic. Guerin at that point wasn’t prepared to blame Evason for Kirill Kaprizov having (now) two even-strength goals this season, Matt Boldy being a shell of what he looked like in March, the role players not producing or killing penalties and goaltenders Filip Gustavsson and Marc-Andre Fleury, plain and simple, not being up to snuff.
“It’s that old saying: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” Guerin said at the time. “I think Dean’s doing a good job. And you know what? He can’t go out and play for the guys. He can’t have them execute. They have to do that.”
Guerin echoed the same sentiment after Evason’s dismissal. “Dean did an excellent job during his tenure with the Minnesota Wild, especially as Head Coach of our team,” he said in a release. “I am very thankful for his hard work and dedication to our organization.”
But as much as it seemed like Guerin was open to letting this season play out, perhaps giving the team a chance at a top-five pick in next year’s draft, the mountain of losses became impossible to ignore. The Wild have a bunch of winnable games coming up and the West is so down right now that even accumulating enough points to get to the mid- to upper-80s might be good enough to make the playoffs.
That’s still doable for the 5-10-4 Wild, who have 63 games left, and something Guerin hopes and expects a coaching change could spur.
Remember, owner Craig Leipold said during the preseason, “I think we’re going to have a better team than we had last year.”
There were reasons to fire Evason, as the same problems continued to plague the team all season. “That’s what pisses you off,” Evason said Sunday. It’s been the porous penalty kill, which was part of the team’s downfall in the past two playoffs and is at 66.7 percent this season. There’s the undisciplined and untimely penalties, which have crushed a Wild team that’s had nights like Sunday where it controlled play five-on-five.
Long-tenured NHL coaches usually benefit from strong goaltending, and that is another area that has faltered this season for the Wild, with an .878 save percentage that is third-worst in the league, better than only Carolina (.873) and Edmonton (.877), which fired their coach Jay Woodcroft earlier this month.
You’re also only as good as your best players, and the Wild’s have been too much of a nonfactor this season. Kaprizov, the two-time 40-goal scorer, has just six goals in his first 19 games and is a minus-10. Boldy, a 31-goal scorer last year, has just one goal in 12 games. “Some guys are not pulling their weight,” Evason said Sunday,
Evason was more publicly critical of his top players this season than he had been previously in his tenure in Minnesota. It was a sign that he was reaching the end of his rope, both patience-wise and with his job. Some of these meetings were behind closed doors, like when Evason and his staff challenged their three captains — Kaprizov, Foligno and Joel Eriksson Ek (when he wore an “A” for injured Jared Spurgeon) — before practice Nov. 10. The team rallied for a 5-4 come-from-behind victory the next night at home against the Rangers, a moment that Foligno said afterward felt like a “season changer.” Minnesota won its next game, too, on the road against the Islanders on Nov. 7, but hasn’t won since.
Guerin then gave the team what players called a “kick in the ass,” “get your s— together” address the Monday before their trip to Sweden for the Global Series. The former Cup champ as a player and executive laid into them, both individually and as a group.
“My biggest thing is our compete level,” Guerin told The Athletic on Nov. 19. “And look, guys work hard every night and they care. I know that. But it’s a different type of compete and focus. I just don’t think we’ve had it.
“It’s everything from faceoffs and 50-50 puck battles to just pure execution, being in position, being in the right places to tape-to-tape passes. It all needs to be better.”
The Wild are 0-2-2 since.
It’s a lot easier to change a coach than it is a roster, and that holds especially true for the Wild, who have a bunch of veterans locked up with no-trade or no-move clauses. Guerin’s decision to re-sign Foligno, Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello in September, in hindsight, looks even worse because of the timing. They could have been valuable chips at the trade deadline if the season continued to tailspin. Now all Minnesota has to dangle really is pending unrestricted free agents Pat Maroon and Brandon Duhaime, pending restricted free agent Connor Dewar and maybe an underperforming player with term like Jake Middleton.
Firing Evason was Guerin’s last chip to play before the focus will, and should, go to him. Guerin inherited Evason as an assistant coach, but he did take the interim head coaching label off without a coaching search and ultimately gave him a three-year extension. The buyouts of Parise and Suter were expected to buy Guerin some time, knowing that their roster would be limited due to the dead cap hits. But making the coaching change indicates both Leipold and Guerin are still focused on making this a competitive team. A playoff team.
For a group that hasn’t been able to muster up a victory of late despite playing better, that seems like a longshot. It’s not just the losses but how the Wild look and what they say afterward. When a three-time Cup champion like Maroon says Sunday that the team has to play with more “pride,” that’s a red flag.
The Wild will be playing for a new coach now. This season-opening slide was not completely Evason’s fault. This might not seem fair. But to salvage this season, Minnesota needed more than just tinkering lines or players-only meetings.
Does hiring Hynes move the needle enough? That’s the card Guerin is willing to play.