After finishing second in last year’s Jack Adams voting as the NHL’s top coach, Dean Evason’s name is circulating again as a top candidate this year. His team is currently second in points percentage in the Central Division, behind only the Colorado Avalanche. The opportunity to further pad his resume only grows as the season goes on.
However, COVID is affecting the NHL again this year. The league hasn’t shut down. Nor has it shortened the number of games played as they did the past few seasons. But there is no doubt the pandemic is again significantly impacting the schedule. For much of December and parts of January, the Wild sat idle. The league postponed many games due to other teams affected by COVID or the NHL's desire to delay games played in Canada due to arena capacity restrictions.
At the time, the postponed games seemed like a blessing in disguise. The Wild may not have been battling as many bouts of COVID positives on their team, but the injury bug bit hard. Significant injuries sidelined some of their best players. Joel Eriksson Ek, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, and starting goaltender Cam Talbot spent time out of the lineup. However, a lightened schedule allowed the Wild to play fewer games without their top players. Following a five-game losing streak in the middle of December, Evason has rallied his team to a 6-1-1 record in the new year. And he did so with a diminished roster.
With so many key players missing from the lineup on most nights, Evason has done an admirable job preparing his team to thrive under difficult circumstances. However, even with those injured players beginning to make their way back into the lineup, his biggest test is yet to come.
Following the NHL and the NHLPA's decision to back out of participating at the Winter Olympics in Beijing next month, the NHL gained a much-needed two-week hole in the calendar to reschedule the postponed games from December and January. With seven postponed games, the Wild were one of the most affected teams during that stretch. And the schedule makers didn’t make it easy on them when they announced the revised slate of games last week.
Every NHL head coach will tell you that a regular 82-game season is already a grind, both physically and mentally. But 40 games in 77 days? Every joint and muscle in my body hurts just reading that. Take into account the amount of travel required in such a small space of time and the task seems even more daunting. Yet, in peak Evason form, he isn’t about to allow this to be an excuse for poor play.
“The guys will embrace it," Evason told The Athletic when the NHL announced the revised schedule. "They tell us to play, and we’ll get ready when the puck is dropped.”
Evason’s ability to hold his team accountable, regardless of the situation, has been a cornerstone of his coaching style since his arrival. The situation has never been normal for him, yet he has consistently turned in great results.
Remember, Evason was an interim coach when Bill Guerin fired Bruce Boudreau in February 2020. And Evason wasn't Guerin's hire in the first place. Former GM Paul Fenton brought him in as his hand-picked successor to Boudreau. Following Fenton's abrupt firing in August 2019, Minnesota hired Guerin in his place shortly before the 2019-20 campaign. It forced Guerin to keep his coaching staff intact with such limited time before the season began. Following an up-and-down first half to the season, Guerin fired Boudreau and replaced him with Evason. The overwhelming consensus at the time was Evason would hang on for the remainder of the season until Guerin could complete a full hiring process the following summer.
Of course, that never truly happened. The pandemic disrupted the entire world only a month after Evason’s promotion. Following their departure from the postseason bubble in Edmonton later that summer, Guerin retained Evason for another season. A short offseason made hiring a new coach extremely difficult, in addition to the uncertainty that the next season would bring. Again, Evason essentially had a tryout for his job – a difficult situation for a coach attempting to cement himself with his team.
Yet Evason thrived in such a unique environment. He led the Wild to a 35-16-5 record in front of empty buildings and an unorthodox schedule. For this reason, the Wild should be optimistic about their ability to navigate the difficult schedule they face the rest of this season. If any coach can steadily guide them to another postseason appearance, Evason seems to be the perfect man for the job.
If the season were to end now, it’s doubtful Evason would lead the vote count for the prestigious award. Other candidates like Mike Sullivan (Pittsburgh Penguins), Gerard Gallant (New York Rangers), and former Wild player Andrew Brunette (Florida Panthers) would head the list. However, Evason’s moment to shine has yet to really come.
If any of those other teams slip in the standings, and Evason continues to motivate his team to thrive despite such a daunting schedule the rest of the season, he may find himself back into the conversation as the league’s best coach. Whether he gets recognized for it or not, the Wild have themselves the perfect coach for an imperfect situation.
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