Players, coaches and media officially reconvened at TRIA Rink in St. Paul for the first Minnesota Wild practice in 123 days. It was part of the NHL’s larger Return to Play Phase 3 for teams continuing into the 24-team playoff format. When the doors opened and lights came on, Wild GM Bill Guerin announced that Dean Evason signed a two-year extension to become the franchise’s fifth full-time head coach in its 20 year history.
As Zone Coverage explored previously, the odds were stacked against the long-time NHL assistant and AHL head coach. This is Evason’s first NHL head coaching job. His audition this season was cut short by the league’s suspension due to the COVID-19 global pandemic in early March. There were also numerous veteran coaches available this season with the names of Peter Laviolette, Gerard Gallant and Mike Babcock among the top names on the list. That, coupled with the fact that Evason was not brought in by the current general manager, does not point to an interim label getting removed in most cases.
Contract specifics for coaches in the NHL aren’t typically released to the public. This two-year deal runs through the end of the 2021-22 season. In those two seasons, Evason will continue to oversee the development of a crop of young 20-somethings for which the organization has high aspirations.
Among those players is reigning First Star of the Week Kevin Fiala. Fiala had a breakout season with an unreal month of February in which he scored nine goals, added 10 assists in 14 games played. While Fiala’s breakout started under Bruce Boudreau, it was under Evason when the franchise witnessed the skating, puck skills and shooting ability of Fiala take over games. Evason put Fiala into an elevated role, and he was rewarded with his team reaching the brink of the playoff picture at the time the league paused operations. He now gets a chance to coach this team in a modified postseason, with things looking bright for the future.
Kirill Kaprizov has been the enigmatic Russian prospect since his drafting in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. There have been rumors swirling this week that while he won’t be eligible to debut in the NHL’s return to play, he still can sign and practice with the team, with the Wild willing to burn the first year of an Entry Level Contract. Evason will now get the chance to see the debut of Kaprizov next season.
Evason has plenty of history working with top players from his time in Washington as an assistant. He worked with Alexander Oveckin and Niklas Backstrom, to name a pair. He also had time with Fiala in the minors and other top players when he was the head coach of the AHL affiliate of the Nashville Predators.
There’s another aspect of this deal that shouldn’t go unnoticed for a first-time head coach: It’s only two years long. This means that the team will have some continuity through the first couple seasons after what is an unprecedented season this year. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a lot of uncertainty for the future of NHL hockey between scheduling logistics, financial implications and individual player health situations. This is one fewer item to worry about in a time where the list of things to worry about is long.
Stay tuned for more analysis on Evason’s hiring as full-time head coach from Zone Coverage.