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  • A Laissez-Faire Approach To Practice Doomed Wild's Postseason Chances

    Joe Bouley

    Few things in the sport of hockey are static. The puck is constantly in motion, as are the players on the ice. NHL teams are constantly in flux year over year, month over month, game to game, and sometimes within a single game. 


    There are several reasons why coaches change their lineup. Injuries or trades may require a shuffling of the lines. But regular roster decisions that don't include a player being hindered because they either can't perform or are no longer part of the team come down to how the coach thinks they can manipulate the deck to their advantage.


    Former Wild head coaches Jacques Lemaire and Mike Yeo weren't afraid to mix it up. Bruce Boudreau had a MasterChef blender that spit out line combos daily. Lemaire played Brent Burns as a forward. Yeo couldn't decide if Charlie Coyle was a center or a winger. Boudreau moved his lines around so much that Nino Niederreiter was sold to the Carolina Hurricanes as a "fourth-liner" even though he was definitely not a fourth-line forward.


    Wild head coach Dean Evason bucked that trend this season. He erred on the side of consistency. It looked like a genius move, mainly because the Wild won a lot early, in the middle, and late. If everyone was healthy, you knew what the top three lines would be.


    Kirill Kaprizov - Ryan Hartman - Mats Zuccarello


    Kevin Fiala - Freddy Gaudreau - Matt Boldy


    Marcus Foligno - Joel Eriksson Ek - Jordan Greenway


    It was consistent, and it worked. At least, until it didn't.


    After a Game 4 loss to the Blues, a game the Wild let an opportunity slip away, Evason chose not to shake things up for Game 5. It can be reassuring, in a way, for the coach to exercise restraint on making changes after a loss. It appears stoic, in control, and definitely not panicking after one loss.


    But the reality was this: The Wild were buoyed by two guys all series long. Eriksson Ek and Kaprizov were the only ones getting it done. However, in Game 4, Craig Berube's lineup adjustments silenced the Eriksson Ek line. Boldy and Fiala were already quiet, as were Hartman, Foligno, and Greenway. What had worked all season long suddenly no longer worked. The book was out on the Wild lines and how Evason deployed them.


    It's important to point out that what each of those three lines had in common was that they've mainly been the same since October, minus swapping out Pitlick for Boldy and eventually Tyson Jost for Nico Sturm. There were a total of 17 line combinations that were on the ice for 30 minutes or more. But Evason didn't use any of those other line combos for more than 100 minutes. Once health was on their side, Evason went right back to his standard combinations. 


    Ultimately, the lines felt like they were built in such a way because each player's skillset in each trio complemented the other two. However, Evason didn’t give many other combos a chance to breathe and settle in before switching it back. 


    When Evason took over full-time coaching duties, he wasn’t about to be caught up in the day-to-day drama of switching up lines. “It doesn’t matter who guys play with,” Evason said in 2020. "We flipped the lines around. Who cares? You’re playing with a teammate. We tried to set that standard right away, and it’s carried on into this season.” It’s a strong statement about being a cohesive team and placing ego aside for the betterment of everyone on it. It’s a statement that needed to be said, given the personalities in the locker room at the time. It's a line that has to be great for any new player to hear as well.


    It was also echoed about managing adversity when new names showed up on the roster this year. However, when Minnesota needed that mantra for a postseason spark, that attitude was nowhere to be found.


    Why? Why didn’t Evason mix up his line combinations? If he genuinely believed that a Wild player should be able to play alongside another player in a Wild sweater, switching up the lines shouldn’t have been such a tall order. 


    On a recent podcast, Michael Russo of The Athletic opined about the state of the special teams. “This team never practices. Ever,” he said. “The Wild had only three practices since March 21st. It's one thing not to practice, but then they have optional morning skates every day."


    This practice schedule, or lack thereof, was heavily employed down the stretch of the regular season and during the playoffs. Evason was so locked into his lines and the comfortability and ease of filling out the lineup card every night. But when things got difficult, Evason didn’t know which players he could put together to be more effective. How could he? There wasn’t any time down the stretch where he was in front of the team, on the ice tinkering with what did or didn’t work. Never mind fixing what plagued the Wild’s special teams.


    Evason has good players who play well together. That’s a treat to have in the first couple of seasons into your head coaching career. It’s been relatively easy for him so far. But Berube out-coached Evason in the playoffs. Whether it was game-to-game adjustments, line deployment, strategies, or into the daily grind of the postseason and conducting practices and morning skates on the regular. Berube didn’t do anything the Wild shouldn't have expected. But the Wild, and especially Evason, didn’t prepare themselves to fix easily correctable mistakes. 


    Bill Guerin rewarded the coaching staff with contract extensions back around Christmas. They’ve been a successful group with a successful and fun team since they’ve taken over. It’ll take a lot for Guerin to make a coaching change, and we're not saying he should. But Evason needs to find the answers and make adjustments next season. If a Wild player should be able to play with anyone else in a Wild sweater, then a Wild coach should be able to coach any player in a Wild sweater, no matter what time of year it is or how many games in a row they’ve played together.


    Stats courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com

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