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  • Did the Wild's Lack Of On-Ice Discipline Factor Into Evason's Dismissal?

    Image courtesy of Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports
    Justin Hein

    It’s a sports cliché to say that teams take on the personality of their coach. The obvious response in hockey is what personality? NHL coaches are pretty milquetoast, and it can be hard to identify the difference between one coach and another. To a large degree, hiring and firing coaches is mostly a motivational tactic for the players who make up underperforming teams.

    But Dean Evason’s passion and zest for the game stood out. Evason believed it helped him connect with fans. In a recent interview with The Athletic’s Michael Russo, he said, “When I did show my emotions, I heard from people that they love that. And I didn’t do it to get media attention. It’s just who I am. It’s just the passion that I have.” 

    It’s hard to disagree with him. 

    Just as he connected with fans, it’s clear that many of his players loved playing for him. So, why would firing him turn around Minnesota’s early-season woes? If it does, it will be due to a culture shift on the ice. 

    The root cause of the Wild’s poor early-season results are easy to identify. A bad penalty kill, poor goaltending, and an epidemic of players marching to the penalty box. Perhaps that justifies the firing of Bob Woods, who ran the team’s penalty kill. But can firing Dean Evason positively impact any of these other issues? 

    Take a close look at the timeline leading up to Evason’s firing. It’s easy to trace it back to postseason failures, which set the table for raised expectations. Three straight seasons on pace for 100-point seasons with nothing to show for it made the fans surly, and the team needed results this year. 

    In the past three postseasons, the Wild have lost to two Peter DeBoer-coached teams: the Vegas Golden Knights and the Dallas Stars. That may explain why they’ve had a lack of playoff success. DeBoer and his deadly power plays became enemy No. 1 for Wild fans last year when he publicly antagonized Minnesota’s tendency to take penalties. Evason responded by calling out the Stars for diving. 

    The response is typical of Evason’s straightforward nature. He’s accountable, but he’s also fiery. His reputation is well-known among players and the media. For example, Marcus Foligno defended his coach earlier this season, saying, “Deano is emotionally involved in the game, and it almost brings us emotionally involved in the game.” In the same interview, Evason admitted he was going out of his way to tone it down with the referees, which is a point of emphasis across the league this year. 

    That brings us to the crux of the issue and the reason Evason’s firing may actually help the team. There’s reason to believe that Evason’s messaging inadvertently led players to take more penalties. It’s not because Evason coaches dirty hockey but because of the aggressive brand of hockey that he ascribes to. 

    Evason’s motto has always been aggression. Evason laid this philosophy out on his first day as the Wild interim coach. "We want the group to be accountable and aggressive. If we make a few mistakes because we're aggressive, we can live with that, but not if we are passive." In this case, aggression doesn’t refer to a place of anger but rather the contrast between proactive strategy and reactive strategy. 

    Think what this means on defense. Never sit back on your heels and wait for a turnover. Instead, chase the puck carrier and force the turnover. What does that look like when players get tired? Extra contact and aggressive stick-checking can increase holding calls, stick infractions, and other penalties.  

    That philosophy of aggression doesn’t only apply to his early tenure with Minnesota, either. Eleven years ago, Evason explained the philosophy he planned for the AHL Milwaukee Admirals. Read through his answer, and you’ll count the word “aggressive” five times in eleven sentences. Here’s his main point: 

    “I want our teams to play with as much passion and be aggressive as we possibly can. I want the team to play very up-tempo, to be in people’s faces, to put pressure on people to turn pucks over and make mistakes offensively.”

    Essentially, Evason doesn’t want his teams to sacrifice defensive pressure for fear of taking a few extra penalties. So, why is this no longer tenable? Take a look at Minnesota’s goaltending and penalty kill. They can’t handle an increased workload right now. 

    Evason’s tenuous relationship with the referees doesn’t help either. The Athletic’s Michael Russo referenced that “Evason, a fiery, hard-nosed player in his day, believes teams take on the personality of their coach.” 

    If there were any doubt, old friend DeBoer and his Stars proved that in spades when they drubbed the Wild 8-3 in St. Paul before they left for Sweden. It was a harsh reminder that Evason’s philosophy no longer seemed to mesh with the Wild’s talent. 

    What’s more, things were only getting worse. In Evason’s final game with the team, Ryan Hartman slew-footed Detroit Red Wings star Alex DeBrincat, earning a two-game suspension. I’m not saying that Hartman or his coach wanted the play to happen, but it’s yet another undisciplined play from an increasingly undisciplined team. 

    Evason committed to tone down his arguments with the officials this season. However, it may be too late. Minnesota remains one of the top ten most penalized teams by penalty minutes, total penalties, and penalty-kill opportunities this season. Depending on your metric of choice, the other teams in that group include the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, and San Jose Sharks. In other words, teams in the bottom third of the league standings. 

    Things can’t go on like this if Minnesota plans to rejoin the playoff race. And rest assured, this franchise doesn’t plan on missing the playoffs

    Ultimately, it doesn’t seem that Evason ever lost the room. Instead, his players took his message a step too far. Now, the players have the pressure of saving their coach’s job lifted from their shoulders. With that, hopefully, they can play freer on offense and more disciplined on defense. 

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    IMO he lost the room. If Billy is out saying Dean tried everything and nothing was going to fix it , than it sounds like losing the room. 
        I think the truth lies more in players being to comfortable! They were comfortable because of extensions and knowing where they stood with coach. The extensions are why Dean was fired. Simple as that. Players were to comfortable!  Now they are really uncomfortable and playing well. Funny how that works when your job, minutes or line your on is in jeopardy . The new coach hasn’t done anything yet except for the fact the players need to prove themselves to a new coach for playing time . Time will tell if coach is good but the player’s performance now tells everything.  This team sucks when it’s comfortable!  Who knows how long Dean would have lasted if those extensions weren’t signed and those guys were playing for contracts. My guess is you wouldn’t see a whole team for 20 games have it’s head in it’s  a_s like we did.  So Imo bills wonderful extensions got his buddy fired. . 

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    Ah yes, the last “Why Dean Got Fired” post. I have been waiting for it, Justin! Thanks! No, really, we all know most coaches get fired because the team quits playing well for the old coach for a variety of reasons. The firing wakes the boys back up and they play better almost immediately. If the wake up call doesn’t keep going then a couple players getting moved is next on the agenda for the GM or he could be in trouble, too. Our GM probably has a longer leash as he has been given an extension/promotion recently.

    So I am hoping the Wild keep playing entertaining hockey, but like many I was already dreaming about that top five pick. But what the hell, top five or 15-20, it doesn’t matter, we will all (mostly) be back for more next year, probably complaining about the first round exit.

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    Concerning thought:  For all of the (justified) talk about playing the right way, playing faster, etc., in the two games since Hynes took over, what else was different about the team the Wild put on the ice against the Blues and Predators?

    - Hartman was serving his two game suspension for the slewfoot on DeBrincat.

    Correlation is not causation, but let's hope the Wild can keep up the strong play with their "full" roster.

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    Interesting take.

    I definitely think there is a sense of self destruction in the manner we lost last season and also a sense of Evason committing some strange form of seppleku this season.  I don't want this team to become too passive either though but a little discipline does seem to go a long way.  

    The last two games have looked like a manic team finally getting a dose of some sort of reality check like a slap in the face.

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    Great article! Undisciplined for sure, I’d add unnecessary, ill advised, untimely, and most of all careless. I rarely saw the team cracking down on players taking game ending, back breaking, momentum killing penalties. Dean tried to set up his roster into a rolling 4 line team only to watch it get derailed on a nightly basis. I’m hoping that the new coach can find a way to help the players hold themselves accountable long term. 

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    On 12/1/2023 at 6:50 PM, Dean said:

    IMO he lost the room. If Billy is out saying Dean tried everything and nothing was going to fix it , than it sounds like losing the room.

    Agreed. BG reading the team the riot act player by player was the greatest indictment for me. And it might not necessarily be all Dean's fault (but I think a lot was because Deano was too inflexible). The players had to be better but weren't doing so under Deano.


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