When Bill Guerin retained Dean Evason for this season, it seemed like a continuity move above all else. The Minnesota Wild were once a stable organization with an owner who was willing to spend, the same general manager for nearly a decade, and a young coach who was given ample opportunity to turn a team headlined by two nearly $100-million players into Stanley Cup Champions.
Continuity had been a staple of the Wild organization for years, and in the Zach Parise–Ryan Suter era, it became a detriment. They took a gamble by signing both players to contracts that the league eventually outlawed and, at least in Parise’s case, were detrimental to the team. Instead of bringing on an experienced coach like Peter Laviolette or Ken Hitchcock, they stuck with an overwhelmed Mike Yeo. Rather than package some of their young stars for a proven player, they held on to players like Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund too long when the team should have been pushing to win during Parise and Suter’s primes.
But a sense of urgency gave way to chaos. Craig Leipold, the owner who had doled out those 13-year contracts to Parise and Suter to transform the Wild into Stanley Cup contenders, turned to Paul Fenton to wring out a few more playoff runs before his $98 million players hit their late 30s. Fenton was a precocious scout for the Nashville Predators, the team Leipold previously owned, who didn’t have the temperament to run a hockey team and was ousted in July of 2019 before he could do any more damage.
In comes Bill Guerin, a star player known for his longevity and consistency, to keep the boat from capsizing. He ousted Boudreau, a beloved sexagenarian coach, likely because Boudreau himself was a chaos agent. Boudreau turned the color of a tomato when interacting with the officials. He became famous for a blustery rant where he dropped 15 F-bombs on the Washington Capitals. He developed the “line blender” that Ninja later patented. It rivaled Dan Akyroyd’s BassOMatic in terms of Canadian kitchen appliances.
He’d toss all of the Wild forwards into his three-speed contraption, lift the lid while it was still running, and spew forward combinations onto the ice in real-time. It created a mess in the kitchen, but it made for entertaining television. It took a basic concept — shake up the lines if your team isn’t scoring — and took it to an extreme. We all get it, Minnesota never scored in the time between Marian Gaborik’s departure and Fenton’s fever dream trade for Kevin Fiala. But holy line changes, Batman. Boudreau’s approach to forward combinations probably left his players dizzy and nauseous. Nothing a strawberry shake couldn’t cure.
Evason, 56, is 10 years Boudreau’s junior but has a much more old-school approach to the game. He’s old enough to have played a majority of his 13 years in the NHL for the Hartford Whalers and caught on with the expansion San Jose Sharks in the prime of his career. While Boudreau projected a jovial persona as head coach, Evason swapped out his dark mullet for a military-style gray buzzcut when he moved behind the bench.
Evason found Boudreau’s blender in the corner of the locker room and tossed cement in it. Once he found his line combinations, they were set in stone. Joel Eriksson Ek is, was, and always be a shutdown, third-line center. Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala must maintain six feet of distance between them at all times. He was going to get $4 million worth of play out of Victor Rask, damn it.
Maybe he received positive feedback from his players when he slowed down the line-change lottery. Perhaps they wanted to build chemistry with a couple of other linemates rather than the entire roster. It could just be that Evason feels that’s the way things should be. Whatever it is, Evason stubbornly stuck to his lines, even when evidence mounted that he shouldn’t.
Zach Parise and his $7 million contract complicated things. So did Matt Boldy and his impressive AHL production. And yeah, the Wild don’t have enough center depth. But the striving for continuity became grotesque, even before the playoffs started. Maybe Evason played Marcus Johansson over Parise because Guerin traded for him. Perhaps Rask got first-line minutes because Minnesota was trying to build up his value and find a trade partner. Parise may have been scratched in the playoffs because his attitude had soured. After all, Guerin has tried to trade him multiple times, and Evason moved him to the fourth line.
Whatever it is, it didn’t work. Once again, the Wild failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs. They faced the Vegas Golden Knights, a team they had played well against during the regular season.
Wasn’t this a team that overachieved, though? Wasn’t this supposed to be a rebuilding year? Only if you never changed your expectations based on new information. We learned that Kaprizov was the real deal. We saw Joel Eriksson Ek emerge as a two-way force. We found out that half of the Honda West Division (the Arizona Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Anaheim Ducks) wasn’t very good and that the St. Louis Blues had taken a step back.
This team met expectations. They haven’t gotten out of the first round since 2015. They staved off elimination twice and made it to Game 7 on the back of a hot goalie. Even if they had advanced, the Colorado Avalanche probably would have swept them, just like the Chicago Blackhawks did in Round 2 six years ago.
I’m not trying to be a downer on the team’s future. Kaprizov is a legitimate star. Fiala’s breakout last year wasn’t a fluke. They have a great defensive corps. Boldy looks like he will be an impact player next year, and there should be more bona fide prospects coming soon. But the person behind the bench needs to know how to maximize their abilities — when to stick with a hot line and when to shake things up, and when consistency is a virtue and when it’s a vice.