Wild

Evason Found the Right Line Combinations and Created A Formidable 1-2 Punch

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

Dean Evason‘s ability to push the right buttons was one of the fundamental reasons behind the Minnesota Wild’s decision to extend their second-year coach to a multi-year deal. Once again, he’s working magic with the Wild’s lack of a No. 1 center. This issue forced the team to use a center-by-committee approach in the 2020-21 campaign. And they did the same thing again at the start of this season.

Victor Rask primarily played that role last season, but it was evident that the line was scratching the surface of what its wingers could do. While the trio had success, the line wasn’t elite. Likewise, the eye test told us that Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello carried Rask.

When Joel Eriksson Ek scored a career-high 19 goals last season, many people were calling for him to play as the top center on the roster. The Wild didn’t make a splash in free agency and didn’t make any significant trades, bowing out of the Jack Eichel sweepstakes. Eriksson Ek’s emergence warranted a look, and he was given the opportunity at the beginning of the season. However, the trio didn’t seem to click, so it was time to adjust. 

Evason tinkered with the lines and finally found a solution by putting Ryan Hartman between Kaprizov and Zuccarello. That reunited Eriksson Ek with Jordan Greenway and Marcus Foligno, a line Evason calls his “security blanket.”

After nearly scoring at a point-per-game rate last season, Kaprizov is on pace to shatter last season’s point totals. There’s a chance that he will become the first player in franchise history to hit the 100-point plateau. Zuccarello is on pace for career highs in every category. Hartman has been a massive reason behind their success.

The line has a 53 percent expected goals rate, so they’re controlling play on the ice. More importantly, the trio is sporting an absurd 72 percent actual goals rate, and their 6.98 goals per 60 is the highest in the league. It has become one of the NHL’s most dangerous lines and certainly won’t be touched moving forward.

Hartman is playing with lots of talent, so he deserves credit for his awareness and being in the right place at the right time.

Their chemistry is evident, and Hartman’s goal-scoring is a considerable part of that. No disrespect to Rask, but he doesn’t have the shot or talent to match the production that Hartman has been able to accomplish. Just observing them play, it’s evident that all three complement each other. Kaprizov is a dual-threat, and Zuccarello is an elite passer, so Hartman is a perfect stylistic fit between them. Further, this line is dominant because all three are legitimate shooting threats.

What makes this more incredible? Hartman’s emergence moving forward is enormous, given he has two years remaining on his contract with a team-friendly $1.7 million cap hit.

Eriksson Ek is fresh off signing an eight-year deal last summer and has been much better on Minnesota’s formidable third line. It’s arguably the best shutdown line in the NHL, and the numbers back it up, too.

In just over 175 minutes this season, Eriksson Ek’s line has a 62 percent expected goals rate. The trio isn’t shy about causing damage offensively, but their most significant impact comes on the defensive side. Their 1.77 expected goals against per 60 is the fourth-best mark in the league. Further, the trio has yet to surrender a goal this season, indicating how strong they’ve played defensively. And despite Eriksson Ek’s deployment as a member of the shutdown line, he still is on pace to break last season’s numbers. That’s impressive, considering he was sidelined for several weeks.

Minnesota’s shutdown line simply can’t be talked about without mentioning Foligno’s value to this team. The veteran winger already surpassed his career-high in points, and he’s on pace to hit 30 goals. While Greenway has struggled for a good portion of the season, his game is starting to show signs of improvement, and reuniting the line helps him. The trio’s playing style — physicality mixed with defensive prowess and strong offense capability — has made them one of the best shutdown lines in the NHL.

Evason has made some questionable decisions, but there’s no doubt that his line combinations have revitalized the lineup from top to bottom. Minnesota unlocked Hartman’s offensive upside. As a result, the Wild’s glaring need down the middle has diminished. And Eriksson Ek will likely play a more significant role in the future. But for now, he’s flourishing in his shutdown role, and it hasn’t made him any less of an offensive threat.

With the strong play of the fourth line, the Wild have a chance to ice four dominant lines if they allow Marco Rossi to center Kevin Fiala and Matt Boldy. There’s a lot of uncertainty moving forward with the pending cap issues. But with the first line locked up for the near future and flourishing, it’s no longer something to worry about. The Wild are deeper than ever.

All Data Via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, MoneyPuck and Hockey-Reference

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Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

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