Fifteen months ago, Wild general manager Bill Guerin made the decision to fire longtime coach Bruce Boudreau. That move came on Valentine’s Day 2020, to be exact, and immediately launched a shotgun wedding with interim coach Dean Evason that has somehow worked out better than anyone could have imagined.
After officially having the interim tag removed before the NHL restart last summer, Evason has slowly but surely taken the Wild to a higher level. It has helped, of course, that star rookie Kirill Kaprizov has simultaneously taken the league by storm, almost singlehandedly changing the narrative surrounding the Wild on a national stage.
Still, there’s a reason the 56-year-old Evason is going to be a legitimate contender for the Jack Adams Award, which goes to the league’s coach of the year.
It would be hard to find a coach who has been better than Evason at pushing the right buttons at the right time this season. His latest test comes at 2 p.m. Sunday when the Wild open the first round of the playoffs against the Golden Knights in Las Vegas.
“You have to find your own personality as a coach,” Evason said. “You pick up different things throughout your experiences from coaches that you’ve played for, coaches that you’ve coached with, and coaches that you’ve coached against.”
All of those experiences have helped Evason develop his own voice behind the bench. He has led with a consistent message, a no-nonsense approach, and a long list of cliches that show up almost every time he steps in front of the camera.
Seriously, go back and listen to some of Evason’s press conferences from the past 15 months. He leans on the same phrases time after time to get his point across, and it seems his players have very clearly bought in.
Here’s a deep dive into the cliches — or better yet, the Evason-isms — that have changed the culture in the Twin Cities.
‘A Minnesota Wild teammate’
Translation: In a league obsessed with line combinations, Evason has consistently hammered home the notion that anybody can play with anybody else in the lineup.
This came into focus about a week after Evason took over last season. With the Wild locked in a hotly contested game against the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 21, 2020, Evason purposefully put his lines in a blender, so to speak.
It was done partially to spark the team in that particular game and partially to send a message about what to expect in the future.
“We hadn’t done anything with the lines up to that point after we took over and in that game we had them all over the place,” Evason recalled. “That was the message after the game. It doesn’t matter who guys play with. We flipped the lines around. Who cares? You’re playing with a teammate. We tried to set that standard right away, and it’s carried on into this season.”
Indeed. Literally anytime Evason has been asked about his first, second, third or fourth line this season, he has reminded reporters that “it doesn’t matter who a guy is playing next to as long as he’s playing next to a Minnesota Wild teammate.”
Though it might have induced some eye rolls early on, the more Evason used that exact phrase, the more his players clearly started to believe it.
A perfect example is the Jordan Greenway-Joel Eriksson Ek-Marcus Foligno line that has been so productive for the Wild this season. That combination came to fruition through trial and error, and only worked because each player was willing to be moved around in the lineup.
“We were playing with a lot of different guys,” Foligno said. “You just have to be ready. If we go in and check the board and see the lines have been mixed up a little bit, it’s not a negative thing. It’s always been a positive thing with our team. We just want to play our best and help our teammates out and find chemistry with whoever.”
Maybe the biggest thing that has helped Evason get through to his players is that he rewards playing based on who’s playing well on that particular night. If the Nick Bonino-Nico Sturm-Nick Bjugstad line is rolling, Evason has no problem sending them over the boards regardless of the situation.
“It’s a very positive thing for our group that they have bought into it and embraced it,” Evason said. “We don’t have a guy pouting about not being on this line or that line or being upset that he’s not playing with so and so. That doesn’t come into our room. There’s no distractions. The players deserve a heck of a lot of credit for that.”
‘We don't have a rotation’
Translation: While it is common place to have a designated starter and a backup in goal, Evason has bucked that trend, keeping the focus on veteran Cam Talbot and rookie Kaapo Kahkonen as a collective.
It’s no secret that Talbot has emerged as the No. 1 option for the Wild during the final weeks of the regular season. But Evason has made a point to mention Kahkonen whenever he gets a chance.
That’s by design, and it has filtered down to the rest of the team. Ask captain Jared Spurgeon about Talbot and he will immediately bring up Kahkonen. Ask skilled winger Kevin Fiala about Kahkonen and he will immediately bring up Talbot.
“We don’t have a rotation,” Evason said earlier this season. “We don’t have anything scheduled. It’s game by game. We see where we’re at after that game and where the goaltenders are at and where the team is at. Then we try to make the intelligent decision.”
Are the Wild actually going to roll with both goaltenders in the playoffs? Not a chance. But the fact that Evason has made it about the tandem rather than the individuals has instilled confidence for both players. And that has extended to the rest of the team.
“We have a ton of confidence in both of them,” veteran defenseman Ian Cole said. “These guys have done their job to a fantastic degree. We are very fortunate. It’s probably going to take both goaltenders to go on a run here, and we are very lucky to have a couple of guys that are playing great.”
If the Wild go on a deep playoff run like they hope, both Talbot and Kahkonen will have to be sharp. Nonetheless, it’s clear the players feel comfortable regardless of who is in net.
“We make the decision with either guy, and nobody is coming to our room like, ‘Why are we doing that?’ ” Evason said. “They work their butts off no matter if it’s in a practice or in a game. They gain the respect of their peers and teammates that way. That allows their teammates to have confidence in them moving forward.”
‘Get the heck away from the rink’
Translation: During the hectic, condensed 56-game schedule, Evason has placed a premium on rest, giving his players more days off than ever before.
With the Wild playing pretty much every other night for the past couple of months, Evason has cancelled almost every practice on the schedule. As far as he is concerned, relaxing at home can be just as valuable as going through a drill on the ice.
“It’s nice to get the heck away from the rink,” Evason said. “I don’t think there’s big enough value put in actually staying away from the arena. I think a lot of times we get caught up in, ‘We need to have a meeting. We need to have a video. We need to do this.’ Sometimes we need to forget about hockey and take a day to completely clear ourselves, then come back ready to go.”
It’s something that impacted Evason as a player. He remembers how practices often took more of a mental toll than a physical toll. Even something as simple as driving to the rink can bring down the energy level.
That awareness is something specific the players have pointed to when asked about Evason pushing the right buttons this season.
“They knew we’d be playing a lot of games in a short schedule here,” center Victor Rask said. “The’ve been doing a pretty good job of getting days off for us. Just getting rest is very important.”
It’s likely that the Wild will continue to place a premium on rest in the playoffs. They scheduled a workout for Saturday morning at Xcel Energy Center, and there’s a chance that could be the final practice of the season.
“The old school way is, ‘If we don’t skate, we aren’t getting better,’ ” veteran defenseman Ryan Suter said. “I think the studies are showing that rest is a weapon and time away from the rink is a good thing. It’s proven to be a positive for us. Hopefully, moving forward we learn from this and continue with it.”
‘Leave it behind and go forward’
Translation: This is basically Evason’s spin on the one-game-at-a-time approach so often used throughout sports.
While this isn’t unique to Evason, he has done an effective job getting his players to believe the message. Just look at how the players have approached each game over the past few weeks.
Though the Wild clinched a playoff berth three weeks ago, back on April 24, players have made it a point not to overlook any game on the schedule. It was pretty effective despite the two blowout losses at St. Louis to conclude the regular season this week.
“It’s not perfect,” Evason said. “It’s a constant battle. But we’ve been real happy with the way the guys have conducted themselves day after day throughout the season. No matter if it’s good or bad, we leave it behind and go forward.”
That mindset has helped the Wild steadily improve throughout this season. They have kept their focus on the playoffs while making sure not to skip any steps along the way.
“That’s the way the season has gone since Game 1,” Spurgeon said. “We’ve done a good job of going day by day, whether it’s a practice or a game. We just focus on that day and then turn the page. Whether it’s a win or loss, we’ve done a good job putting it aside and focusing on the next game.”
‘It's not the coaches. It's the players’
Translation: Ever since he’s taken over, Evason has made it clear to his players that it’s their locker room, not his.
There have been countless times throughout this season that Evason has opted against giving a pregame speech. Instead, he has handed the room over to Spurgeon and the rest of the team. As Evason has reminded reporters so often, “It’s not the coaches. It’s the players.”
“It’s been good,” Spurgeon said. “Especially this season with so many games in a short amount of time, I think sometimes meetings can get repetitive if we’re playing the same team a couple of times in a row. Just to have the freedom to speak up as players has been good.”
It’s not something Evason does before every game. Like a true tactician, he picks his spots, and more often than not, it works out for the best.
“When a coach kind of throws it on our shoulders, we as players want that pressure and we want that responsibility,” Foligno said. “We’ve always seemed to respond when Dean has done it.”
Take a recent overtime win over the Anaheim Ducks. With the Wild struggling to sustain offense throughout the game, players took the lead on the bench and started to remind each other what needed to be done.
“They said all the right things on the bench,” Evason said. “We asked them if they got tired of hearing themselves say, ‘Don’t turn the puck over.’ ”
That statement is Evason in a nutshell. While he has instilled these values in the Wild ever since taking over — with his long list of cliches serving as the blueprint — he always makes sure his players get the credit first and foremost.
“You have to stay firm with what you believe in, and we’ve done that as a coaching staff right from Day 1,” he said. “Hopefully, we can stay consistent going forward.”