The Minnesota Wild have not won a playoff series since they dispatched the St. Louis Blues in six games in 2015.
Since then, it’s been one disappointment after another when the Stanley Cup Playoffs rolled around. Often a one-and-done team, the Wild have re-tooled the front office, the head coach, and are in the progress of overhauling the roster to remake it as a much younger and faster version.
The 2020-21 Wild were a much more exciting team, with Kevin Fiala having a quietly strong season and rookie phenom Kirill Kaprizov taking center stage. The defense is as strong as it has ever been the last decade, and the goaltending has been vastly improved. Bill Guerin has done just about everything right constructing this team for this season with a careful eye on the future of the franchise.
With his team now trailing 3-1 in the first round series against the Vegas Golden Knights, the rookie might be a bit in over his head. And we’re not talking about the human highlight reel from Siberia. Everyone has seemingly forgotten that Dean Evason is still a first-year coach. All the practice in the minors and as an assistant coach for a few NHL teams has allowed him to get to this point, but now when his decisions matter most his rookie status as an NHL coach is being exposed at the worst time.
Game 3 was an absolute disaster.
After a goal was overturned on an offside review, the Wild, who had been handling business to that point, couldn’t figure out a way to push back and turn the tide against the Golden Knights. Instead, Vegas took over and never gave Minnesota any room to get back into the game.
After his team could only muster five shots in the middle frame, Evason remained stubborn with his lines until it was too late in the game to matter.
Minnesota got a power play late in the third period, and Evason made a curious decision. He left the top unit on the ice after just finishing a regular shift. Kaprizov, Fiala, and Rask had finished their shift and the power play with 2:15 of straight time on ice. The power play failed miserably, and did not jump-start the Wild offense.
Later in the game, Evason finally united Joel Eriksson Ek, Kaprizov, and Fiala with about three minutes remaining. It was a move that needed to happen immediately coming out of the second intermission in order for the line to have time to actually have a meaningful impact.
A seven-game series requires a team to master their emotions.
It also requires them to make adjustments.
It’s part of the game within the game that coaches play. Minnesota won Game 1 in OT after Cam Talbot stood on his head, making 42 saves in a game where the Wild were dominated. Minnesota put forth a better effort in Game 2 but lost 3-1. Leading into Game 3, the talk was about how Evason would have the ability to dictate the match-ups and help get Kaprizov away from the attention he’s received throughout the series.
Kaprizov finally found the score sheet with an assist on Ryan Hartman’s easy tap-in. However, the Golden Knights continued to limit time and space for No. 97 while effectively turning the kid into a footnote for the series. And this was after Evason was forced to juggle his lines because Marcus Johansson broke his arm.
Johansson hasn’t had a good season and was a mess through the first two games of the series. It’s not that the Wild was going to count on him for much in terms of offense: In 36 games this season, he was only on the ice for 36% of all the goals for, despite playing next to Fiala for all 36 games. He turned pucks over on a constant basis, and even directly led to Alex Tuch’s eventual game-winning goal in Game 2.
That said, after Johansson stepped on the puck and went careening into the goalpost, breaking his arm, Evason had all sorts of issues filling the gap with another warm body. With the team down to 11 forwards, the head coach tried shifting around players, and the lack of chemistry was apparent. Evason’s insistence on keeping the lines static all season long proved to be a detriment when players needed to gel quickly with new linemates.
Forced to make a lineup change for the first time in a month because of injuries, he’s turned to Zach Parise and Kyle Rau. A case can be made for dressing Parise. But it’s harder to understand his decision to go with Rau, a career AHL player with just two points this season, over Matt Boldy, who has 18 points in 14 games with the Iowa Wild.
This isn’t the first time Evason has been outcoached, either. Minnesota beat the Vancouver Canucks in Game 1 when he was the interim coach last fall. The 3-0 victory was a dominant win and got the upper hand in a short five-game series. Travis Green, a coach who might lose his job this summer, made adjustments for Game 2 to tie the series. Then Vancouver rattled off two more wins to move on, excommunicating them from the Edmonton bubble.
With Minnesota losing Game 4 Saturday night, this same exact scenario played out. Evason has yet to show that he can make the necessary adjustments in-game and between contests to help his team to victory.
Evason got a lot of love for the Jack Adams award as the regular season was winding down. But the rookie head coach has been exposed in this series. The Golden Knights might have the talent on the ice, and the playoff pedigree that the Wild just can’t match at this point. This is where having a coach that hasn’t just made it to the dance, but found success making deep runs with two other teams comes in handy. Minnesota may have stunned the Golden Knights in Game 1, but it’s all been Peter DeBoer dictating every move since then.
The Wild are now on the brink of being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the fifth time since 2016. It’s time for Evason to find his own “A-game” and put the Wild’s best foot forward for a decisive Game 5.
EDIT Note: A previous version of this article noted 12 points in 14 games for Boldy in the AHL. His total was 18 points in 14 games. He scored 12 points while at 5-on-5.