ST. PAUL, Minn. — Time flies.
It’s amazing to think about, but if you include the end of the 2019-20 regular season and the bubble, Dean Evason is entering his fifth season with the Wild, his fourth as the Wild’s head coach and first under a new three-year contract he agreed to last winter.
He’s one of 32 NHL head coaches, and that reality is never lost on the 58-year-old former NHL centerman who never takes for granted being able to walk through the front entrance of the Wild’s practice facility on a daily basis.
“Just you asking me about being one of 32 people in the world to have this job seriously gave me goosebumps,” Evason, pointing to his right arm, said during a half-hour sitdown with The Athletic on Tuesday inside TRIA Rink. “I’m not naive to the fact that I’m in this incredible position. It’s amazing to go through as a player. All I wanted to do was play in the NHL. And then when you get to be a coach, and all you want to do is coach in the NHL.
“I’m so fortunate and you have to have so many breaks and things that happen and fall into place. So many great coaches that never get a chance, so I do appreciate it every day. I’m thankful for this opportunity. Every day I come to work, somebody will say, ‘How ya doing? And I always say, ‘F—in’ awesome.’ How could I not be? I’m coaching in the NHL.”
Evason, an avid golfer, is tanned and refreshed after an offseason of traveling and golfing.
One of his favorite areas he golfed this offseason? Rome, Italy, after he got stuck there for three extra days trying to get back to Canada on one of his wife’s buddy passes. She’s a flight attendant.
Now, he’s raring to go and looking to not only guide a tweaked Wild team once more into the playoffs, but this time beyond the first round after another disappointing and hasty exit last postseason to the St. Louis Blues. After a historically good, 113-point regular season behind a bunch of career years by more than a half-dozen players, the Wild blew a 2-1 series lead thanks to a slew of disappointing performances from just about everybody not named Kirill Kaprizov.
Months later, Evason’s not mincing words on how much harder he plans to be this season to prep this 2022-23 rendition of the Wild on handling the hard moments of the playoffs better. And he’s pointing a finger at himself and the coaching staff, too. Special teams need to improve, and plain and simple, the coaching needs to improve come playoff time, he says.
One week from Thursday, the Wild take the ice for the first time in training camp minus high-scoring winger Kevin Fiala, veteran goalie Cam Talbot and veteran defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, among a handful of others.
Losing such integral players is no excuse for not being just as good this season, Evason says. And during this forthcoming interview, Evason talks about some of the changes we’ll see on special teams, plus potential tweaked lines and defense pairs.
Without further ado, here’s Evason:
In Montreal at the draft, you said your big assignment for you and the coaching staff this summer was to dive deep into your penalty-kill and power-play woes, make the proper adjustments, work on them when you regathered during development camp and implement them in training camp. As casual fans, laymen, system-wise, will there be systematic adjustments or mostly personnel changes? What can we expect to see?
Yeah, the power play will be more personnel. The penalty kill, systematic. On the power play, there’s literally three systems: Umbrella, there’s a spread, there’s the 1-3-1. That’s literally what you can run. Systematically, you won’t see a lot of different stuff. That’ll be more personnel. PK will be a systematic change. We’ve made a decision. We’ve studied through the playoffs, other teams, in order for us to gather the information, sift through a lot honestly the last couple of weeks. We’ve had a couple Zoom calls mainly on that to get our system because you have to have your tweak within whatever system you want to apply. So there will be a serious systematic change and we’re looking forward to implementing it and working on it through preseason.
Without giving away all your trade secrets, it felt like you were very passive last year. Will that change?
Exactly. The obvious thing will be how aggressive we’re going to be. That’ll be the different factor. Both on our forecheck and (the opposing) neutral-zone entry, we’re going to be way more aggressive and we’re also going to be way more aggressive in the zone to put some heat on the team.
Two areas that you really struggled with on the PK: Analytically, your save percentage from your goalies the last several years has not been good and it felt like every time you blew a clear, a puck ended up in the back of the net. Regardless of systematic changes, how much does that simple stuff have to change from your killers — making clears and stopping the puck?
I think that you hit the biggest one, and that’s the one that we’ve identified as the biggest thing that we did not do. And you can say the goalie thing and save percentage, but obviously we’re not doing some stuff to give teams such great looks. The clears were a serious issue for us. We did not clear pucks when we had the opportunity, so that has to get better. But we also are making a conscious effort to, what we call, (share) the puck. So literally just passing the puck to each other, and not just trying to make (desperation) clears through bodies. You don’t have to try to get it all the way down the ice from bad areas the second you get the puck. It’s very difficult, getting heat on you, especially when they got an extra guy, so if we can have outlets or positionally share the puck to each other, that’s an easier, simpler pass and way to get the puck down the ice. We may mess up and turn some pucks over there, but we feel that it’s better to try those passes as opposed to try to get it 200 feet down the ice in bad areas or bad spots.
Jordan Greenway won’t be ready for the start of the season. Will you try to insert Tyson Jost on the left side or would you maybe consider moving Marcus Foligno to the left side of Joel Eriksson Ek and try Freddy Gaudreau on the right?
I’ll be very honest: Jost, we really liked in that position when we put him there last year in a few different situations. So, yeah, that’s where we’ll start. So we’ve got Hartzy’s line (Kaprizov-Ryan Hartman-Mats Zuccarello) and Ek’s line. Now we’ve got to find another line, right? And we’ve got lots of players in competition for that. You got (Marco) Rossi and (Matt) Boldy and Gaudreau and (Sam) Steel and (Connor) Dewar and (Brandon) Duhaime. We also signed (Nic) Petan. So that’s seven for maybe six spots on arguably your third and fourth line if we consider Hartman one and Ek two. That’s where the exciting part about camp comes into play for me. We’ll give it some work.
I was talking to Foligno yesterday and he said Gaudreau looks like he’s ready to erupt right now with the confidence he gained last season. Do you look at him as a guy that, if Rossi can land that center spot with Boldy on his right, that you can play Gaudreau on the left if Jost is with Ek? Or does Gaudreau have to play center or right wing for you?
You just nailed it. I think my feelings personally on Freddy are well known by now and I think it’s an organizational feeling now. You could play Freddy Gaudreau anywhere. So we actually are going to see a lot of him at left wing, too, because you’re right, if Rossi makes the team, we have to find a spot in our top nine for Freddy. So even as a right shot, I have him in a position to play left wing. Sure, we like him at center. Of course, he’s been so good for us, but he has no issues playing anywhere. He’s a Swiss Army knife. He can play in every single position. So we’re very comfortable. You’ll see through camp, our projection is to play these people like Jost and Steel many different places. That’s the nice thing about this roster. A lot of times you’re trying to figure out who’s going to play center. Now we’re trying to figure out who could play wing with all these center ice men we’ve got. So yes, we are going to try Freddy at left wing, but he, too, will move around.
And you look at Steel as a center or he can play wing?
He can play anywhere, but center. I’ve obviously seen him, but I’ve made some inquiries. We’ve watched tape on him. We’ve talked to John Paddock, his junior coach in Regina, who absolutely loves him. So we’ve done our research, but I haven’t physically sat down with him yet and chatted with him. (Center) is what our thought is, that’s the sentiment as of now.
What are your expectations for Rossi in camp? Last year, he really had a short summer of training and it felt like he dipped his toes in. Now he’s had a full summer of training after a great first year pro in Iowa, setting a team rookie scoring record. What do you want to see from him?
He didn’t play a whole year the year before, so we almost expected that he wasn’t going to be ready out of camp last year. And so we’re proud of the year he had in Iowa. He’s played a full year now in the minors. You want to see him take a step. You want to see him take charge. You want to see him be assertive and not be a deer-in-the-headlights, rookie type of thing. And I think our environment invites that with not only our staff, but our players. They will allow a player to flourish. If they want to take that step, if they’re ready and they’re committed and they want it, our group won’t be like, “Oh no.” It’s not unlike (Adam) Beckman last year in training camp. He had a great training camp and the guys were just so welcoming and I’m sure it allowed him to continue to have success through training camp. That’s what we want from all our young people, is to take charge. So no question, Rossi is a very intriguing person that we’ll be watching.
Without Fiala here now, how much do you hope that Rossi and Boldy can develop the chemistry in camp that they had together in Iowa? Not just even strength, but they both played the half walls on the same power play.
Sure. I mean, that’s the ideal situation. We obviously, as an organization, drafted Marco Rossi to be a distributing center ice man and we drafted Matt Boldy to score goals. It seems like it should be the perfect fit. Is it going to be? We don’t know. We’re certainly going to give it a real good look through training camp and practices and see where it shakes.
Goaltending, in July, when you signed Marc-Andre Fleury, the plan was to split Fleury and Talbot basically 50-50. Billy still says he anticipates Fleury playing no more than 50 games. How will you handle the goalie situation and how imperative is it for Filip Gustavsson to not just play, but win?
Just speaking with (goalie coach) Freddy (Chabot), yeah, that’s the mindset that we need him to have right away, that, you know what, “I’m not necessarily just a backup goalie. I’m f—ing here to take charge and take minutes and games and as many as I possibly can.” It’s not a secret that Fleury is not 23 years old, so we will monitor him. We need Gustavsson to play lots of games.
When I talk to Bill Guerin, he almost sounds like Andrej Sustr is going to make the team. And digging into his analytical numbers, he’s been a good penalty killer at the NHL level and his teams have been good on the PK. Could that help him land a spot in the top seven?
Well, with Jon Merrill being out (after offseason surgery) and us not being sure where his progression is going to go and with Kuli’s trade (to Anaheim), we’ve made room. I think that’s the message in camp here is that there are spots, not just forward spots. We’ve got a spot or two on D. Well, a spot for sure. But maybe two new people, as I’m sure you’re going to ask me about Addy (Calen Addison), too. I don’t know Sustr, so I’m not going to pretend to. But everybody that I’ve spoken to feels he can play in the National Hockey League. So he’ll get as good a look as anybody.
Similarly, with Sustr on the PK, Addison quarterbacked the Iowa power play and your power play stunk. Does that give him a leg up in camp?
Hundred percent. That’s his job. He’s done it. Much like the world juniors, I have that memory in my head of him running the PP at the top. So, yeah, we obviously have guys here that are capable of doing that. But again, same as we talked about Rossi, people get drafted for a reason and positionally for what they do. Addy is a power-play player and he needs to make that step and hopefully he can be a power-play player for us.
Will you go with Jake Middleton-Jared Spurgeon again or could we see you mix up Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba?
We are going to try Middleton with Dums and try Brodes with Spurge. We know Dums and Brodes work well. Same with Spurgeon and Middleton. But we are going to have a look at that. We think that it might give us the opportunity to play Spurge and Brodes against the high, high, high-end guys, speed-wise, and then those other two against a little bit more, the grittier, heavier groups. So it’s something that we’re going to give a real good look at.
Then Alex Goligoski and Addison as the third pair to start?
Well, again, there’s Goose (Goligoski), Addy, Sustr, Dakota Mermis. There’s competition for that.
Lots of guys had career years last year: Foligno, Hartman, Zuccarello, obviously Kaprizov, Gaudreau, Eriksson Ek. How do you build on that as a coaching staff or do you worry about regression?
Well, for me personally, I don’t bring it up. I’m not going to bring Gaudreau in and say, “Wow, you did this. You need to better that.” We just want them to do exactly what they’ve done: compete, battle. And we’ll see where the points shake out. That’s not something that I particularly worry about.
So what do you worry about?
One area that I am concerned about or we clearly have to be concerned about is how we handle ourselves in the playoffs. And so our preparation through the season has to be a little harder on everything in order to put ourselves in spots that, when we get the pressure situations or tighter situations, we handle them better. But not only our players. We, as a staff, have to make our group accountable. We want our players this year to make each other more accountable as we go through so that when we get to that point, you’re able to handle it. We have to do that as a staff as well.
Can you expand on that? Where do you as a staff have to be better? Because it did feel that other than Kaprizov, there were a bunch of disappointing players, but you, too, seemed slow to make adjustments.
We got to be f—ing better as a coaching staff. Clearly, we all didn’t handle that situation good enough. So once we get our group, once we get to that group, we are going to speak of that a lot. And we are going to be in a position where we push each other. As I said, I talk about the players making the other player accountable. We have to do the exact same thing on our end, too. We have to be better. Period. We have to give the tools to the players to be prepared. And we didn’t do a good enough job of doing that, so we’re going to push all of us in that direction. There’s nothing we can do about last year, right? Except learn from it and do something different, no different than our PK. We have to do something different that we feel will allow us to have success.
You’ve always been this player-coach. You often say you give the room to the playoffs. You delegate a lot of responsibility to your assistants. They go into the room more than you. Does that need to change? Do you need to be more of a hard-ass?
I think it’s that. I think it’s the opportunity to be a little firmer. Maybe firmer situations where, and I don’t talk a whole lot about this, this is a must-win situation. But we’re going to put a little more heat on the guys. “This game is very important to us.” I’ve never liked the “this is the most important game of the year” stuff. But, well, is it? If it is, it should be brought up. We’re going to make all of us more aware of that situation as we go forward. In the playoffs, we faced f—ing must-win situations and we didn’t make that fact a big deal and we didn’t get it done. That will change.
Guerin traded Kulikov to gain cap space. It sure feels that his objective is, as we get closer to opening night, his hope is to pilfer a desperate team that needs to get cap compliant of a good player for very little, if not nothing, via trade. Do you anticipate that at some point, even though you’ve drawn up all these plans in training camp for guys, that all of a sudden one addition and next thing you know everything is turned upside down?
Honestly, no. I think you know my deal. Personally, I prepare, we prepare as a staff, for the players we have here currently. If somebody comes to us that foots the bill on a specific line or any other position on our team, great. But I don’t get involved. Billy will ask us our opinion, but his job is to give us players. Our job is to coach the players that they give us. And that definitely will not change. So no, I will not be in the back of my mind going, “Geez, when’s the new guy getting here?” I’ve been around a lot of coaches that are like, “Geez, I wish the GM would do this and I wish he’d do that.” If I wish that Billy should do something, then I should get my ass in his office and tell him. But I’m not going to do that. I think Billy and I both have enough respect for each other that if I did, he would respect it. But he allows us to do our jobs, too. So, that’s not my job. That’s not us as coaches. So we’ll do what we do with the team that’s in the room.
Couple fun ones: What do you think of NBA coaches wearing warmup suits? Could you see that ever working in the NHL? Because I have trouble seeing it.
Agree. And I agree, even with the players, I love to see a game where the start of the game, where they’re filming the players walking in and they’re dressed. I don’t know about the tie, but they’re dressed sharp. They’re tight. They have suits on, as well as the coaches. No, I think that’s our game and I know we got to evolve and the game’s evolved. The game has to evolve, but that doesn’t always have to mean how we look has to evolve.
Any new suits and ties for this season?
I know you always comment on my ties and how much you like them. I’ve got some new ties. I think you’ll like them.
Do you have any pregame superstitions or something you do before every game?
People might say I do, but I call them routines. And I think the difference is if you have a superstition and it messes up, then it “mind Fs” you. I always put my left shin pad on first as a player. I do the same thing with my suit and blah, blah, blah. And when I clasp my watch, that’s kind of when I feel I’m ready. But if it gets messed up, I’ve changed it up a few times, I don’t freak out. But I don’t wear the same tie if we win. I don’t wear the same underwear. I don’t wear the same suit, that stuff. I don’t think that has anything to do with wins or losses.
You’re known for your fiery reactions after big goals or wins. You almost ripped (equipment manager) Tony DaCosta’s head off once. What’s the hardest you’ve hit an assistant coach?
They’re doing a thing today on this for that “It’s not weird, it’s Wild” thing. They asked me to participate and you can imagine what my answer was. But the assistant coaches are doing something. You know, (Vikings coach) Kevin O’Connell had the opportunity to come down to our room last year. And we met him and so I’ve texted with him a couple of times. I watched him in the game (against the Packers) and how excited he got there, especially when they score that first touchdown. I think we have to be calm as head coaches, but I don’t think we have to be so stoic that we can’t have emotion. And I know some coaches are just so jacked inside, but they don’t show it. I’m not that way. If we score in overtime, we’re excited. So I’ve hit Darby (Hendrickson) pretty hard, but I don’t know if I could hit other guys that hard. But Darby is as tough as they come.
What player on the Wild would have flourished back in your day?
Marcus is old school, but I’d say Hartzy. He’s just kind of old school. He’ll do anything to win.
What was the most fun thing you did this offseason?
Saw Serena Williams’ last match. I bought a ticket, drove from Montreal myself, five hours. Love tennis. Been to the U.S. Open several times, so as soon as she won her second-round match, I bought the ticket for that night, drove the next day and watched her final match. Just me. Obviously, the tickets were getting a little crazy. But I still got a real good deal, I think. I was in the nosebleeds, but to be there was phenomenal. I saw (Boris) Becker and (John) McEnroe play the Davis Cup in Hartford in the ’80s. It was an unbelievable match. Went five sets. I think it was 21-19 or something like that. I saw (Roger) Federer play live. I saw (Martina) Navratilova play live. So many others live but, but to see Serena Williams live was pretty special.
(Top photo: Brace Hemmelgarn / USA Today)