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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