In the first round of the playoffs this year, head coach Dean Evason has continued his tenure-long trend of relying on the depth of the Minnesota Wild roster to win. He's chosen not to interfere with his lineup's chemistry and roll through his lines as evenly as possible. However, his strategy is wilting at the hands of the man behind the opposing bench.
It’s not that St. Louis Blues coach Craig Berube is the better X’s and O’s guy or out-dueling Evason with a better neutral zone system. It’s simply that Berube has not been afraid to get creative with the way he uses his best players in this series, while Evason continues to fail to adjust.
The contrast in styles started in Game 4 when a rash of injuries led Berube and the Blues to completely overhaul their lines, both on offense and defense. Berube did not attempt to even out his groups to match Evason’s tendency to “roll” all four of his lines fairly equally. No, the former enforcer turned coach decided if his team were to lose Game 4 and fall behind 3-1 in the series, they would do so on the backs of his best players.
At forward, Berube flashed some creative line deployments by occasionally double-shifting his best players. In particular, Robert Thomas basically played on two top-9 lines for the Blues. He logged several shifts between his regular linemates Vladimir Tarasenko and Pavel Buchnevic and the duo of Jordan Kyrou and Brandon Saad. The result? St. Louis’ best players received the most ice time, and they controlled Game 5 at even strength, something the Wild were supposed to have the clear upper hand in.
And it made an impact on the score sheet. Saad's game-tying goal came after a strong effort by Thomas to keep the play alive as Minnesota desperately tried to clear the puck. Then a minute into the third period, Thomas was back on his usual line when Tarasenko scored.
Even with a few key players returning in Game 5, Berube’s trust in his star players did not disappear. Nick Leddy returned, giving Berube three trustworthy defensemen. The Blues rode those three, traditional defense pairings be damned, finding whatever creative ways they could to make sure they were on the ice as often as possible.
How has Evason responded? By not changing anything. As a result, he has helped put his team in a position with their backs against the wall. Make no mistake, the players need to perform better. Kevin Fiala, Matt Boldy, Mats Zuccarello, and a host of other players not named Kirill Kaprizov need to step up in Game 6 if the Wild have any hopes of advancing to a Game 7.
But Evason can help, and it starts by matching Berube’s creativity. Looking back at the deployment of his skaters in Game 5 is an excellent example of how not to approach Game 6 tonight.
For starters, Kaprizov, the absolute best player on the ice in a green sweater from the drop of the puck in the first period, was fourth on the Wild in ice time by forwards. Fourth. In other words, he finished with just 8:27 more ice time at even strength than Nicolas Deslauriers. That’s not the answer in a series-tilting game. While Berube rides his top line for almost 22 minutes in Game 5, Kaprizov was on the ice for nearly four fewer minutes. Four seems slightly insignificant, but it equates to four-to-six extra shifts. Kaprizov was absolutely rolling on Tuesday night, where he seemingly could have altered the game at any moment.
Why couldn’t Evason deploy Kaprizov at 5-on-5, similar to how Berube is occasionally spotting Thomas into other lines for extra, impactful minutes? Evason needs to find a way to buck his trend of traditional line deployments and sprinkle in Kaprizov whenever he can.
Yes, the GREEF line has at times dominated for the Wild, but does anyone think an occasional shift with Kaprizov next to Joel Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno wouldn’t create offense? Or perhaps spot a shift with Kaprizov and Fiala together? Similar to how Thomas was able to ignite Tarasenko, Kyrou, and more, wouldn’t Kaprizov be the best player to help Fiala or Foligno or Tyson Jost get off the schneid?
Evason's head-scratching usage of his forwards is not the only area Berube outclassed him in Game 5. Berube rode his three best defensemen and mixed in his less dominant players to avoid exposing them. On the other hand, Evason continues to spread the minutes among the entire blue line.
He has identified Dumba and Brodin as his top pair, but otherwise, he distributes the minutes too evenly. A struggling Jon Merrill played more even-strength minutes than both Jake Middleton and Jared Spurgeon on Tuesday night.
Veteran Alex Goligoski was a healthy scratch down the stretch run of the regular season and sat in the press box in Game 1. However, he found himself on the ice at even strength for just 48 seconds fewer than Spurgeon, the team captain and undisputed best blueliner. For a game that featured four penalties, that usage on defense is abhorrent.
It’s time for Evason to put aside his traditional style and match Berube’s creativity from the bench. Otherwise, the Wild will quickly enter another offseason wondering why their perceived depth once again failed them in the first round of the playoffs.