Just ask any coach, and they’ll tell you that their system works. The difference lies is in the execution and player talent to work within that system. At least that’s what they’re likely to tell you.
Dean Evason‘s Minnesota Wild team had been locked into a first round match-up with St. Louis with five games left to go in the regular season. Knowing who the opponent is that far in advance usually carries some advantages. Coaches typically don’t enjoy extra scouting time to break down film in the modern NHL. Series match-ups too often come down to the final game of the season because of the parity in the NHL. There’s just a lot of jockeying for playoff position left throughout the league. The final series wasn’t set this season until the second-to-last game of the season. Even the Wild didn’t know that home ice set until they beat the Colorado Avalanche in the final game to clinch what was supposed to be a home ice advantage.
The lead time for preparation could have been useful. Not only that, but as division rivals, the Wild and Blues faced each other three other times this season. The Wild should have been familiar with St. Louis, having lost all three games and only securing two overtime loss points. Minnesota’s coaching staff should’ve been champing at the bit to get the Blues figured out when the stakes were raised.
The Blues didn’t surprise the Wild in any way in this series. St. Louis had the second-best power play in the league and the fifth-ranked penalty kill. And as good as their special teams were, they could be had at 5-on-5. The Blues were middle-of-the-road in expected goals percentage and below 50 percent in shot share.
The [Blues] are who we thought they were, and we let them off the hook! Bill Guerin probably told Evason.
Minnesota allowed those pre-series narratives to play out exactly how it could have been predicted. It’s an egg on the Wild’s collective faces. Sure, the coaching staff made slight tweaks to the PK for Game 2 by playing the forwards lower in the zone to protect against shots coming from the wings. That’s where David Perron torched the Wild in Game 1. Something had to be done.
But after two big wins in Games 2 and 3, where Minnesota jumped the Blues early and just had to stave off St. Louis’ PP just enough to secure victory. It still didn’t stop the Blues from scoring a power play goal in every game of the series. Coaching didn’t do enough to fix the holes.
Doubly so for the power play. It’s inexcusable to go 0-for-6 with the extra man in Game 1 on home ice. If Kirill Kaprizov wasn’t a bona fide superstar, the power play conversion would have been significantly lower. After 82 games of the regular season, a power play ranked in the bottom half of the league is unacceptable given the Wild’s talent on the top unit. At that point, the strategy cannot be just let the guys work their way out of it.
That’s not even mentioning that the Matt Boldy, Frederick Gaudreau, and Kevin Fiala line was quiet all series. They were stymied by the Brayden Schenn line early in the series, and got time against the Ivan Barbashev/Jordan Kyrou line late. But rather than jumble lines to find ways to get them open, he continued to roll his lines, ineffectiveness be damned.
Blues head coach Craig Berube wasn’t going to let his team work it out. He needed to spark his club and found a way to get his players room on the ice. In turn, they shut down the Wild at 5-on-5.
Evason blamed a penalty-filled first period for the performance in Game 4, at least early. “We felt we were disrupted by a four-minute, and then two-minute [penalty],” Evason said. “We weren’t able to get to our game because of that.” He reiterated that same notion leading into Game 5: “When we went back and watched, obviously, our take was, ‘jeez we didn’t get to our game.'”
After Kaprizov carried the Wild without any help in Game 5, Evason was tasked with identifying the flaws in their game. This time around it was “uncharacteristic mistakes.” “Next game has to be our best game and we have to get rid of the uncharacteristic mistakes that we had tonight,” Evason said.
That was the second consecutive game where the Wild failed to adjust to what the Blues were doing to them. It became three in a row when Minnesota dropped everything and rolled over in Game 6. It was a feeble finish to a season with so much promise.
Many coaches succumb to the same folly. The Minnesota Gophers lost to the Minnesota State Mavericks twice in the last two years in the NCAA tournament. Minnesota college hockey coaches are in a special fraternity. They’ve all played with, coached with, or worked with each other across levels and programs. They’re all friends. So Bob Motzko should know exactly what the Mavericks are all about, even if they play in different conferences.
And yet, the Gophers lost the national semifinal game in the same fashion.
Head coaches believe that they have the perfect system, and all the players need to do is go out and execute. Former Wild head coach Mike Yeo felt the same way, until it ultimately cost him his job. An unwillingness to adapt to what the opposition is going to throw at you is as much of a problem as players not executing the system the way it needs to be done.
A coach who succeeds at the highest level will inherently have an ego. They need to believe in themselves and their team. And it has to be sincere, or players, management, and fans will see through it. But the game will humble them. Therefore, humility is a requirement. A coach cannot be so focused on a lack of execution and be too stubborn about adjusting. Evason didn’t respond to Berube’s adjustments. Therefore, it’s no surprise the Wild didn’t respond to the Blues either.
Minnesota left so much on the table in this postseason. Evason and his coaching staff haven’t been able to solve the Blues for the last two seasons, even with the talent he has on the team. The Wild will have a different look next season, which should feature more young talent in the fold. Can Evason adjust? Is he going to be able to figure out the Blues with the new team, one that will have an uphill battle to be better than the one he just had? More than the players, he’s going to have to take a long, hard look in the mirror.