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  • What Happened To Evason's New And Improved Special Teams?

    Image courtesy of Brace Hemmelgam-USA Today Sports
    Justin Hein

    It’s time to have an honest conversation about Minnesota Wild head coach Dean Evason. Now at the helm for three full seasons, Evason has a sufficient body of work by which to evaluate his ability, and he’s established distinct patterns. Chief among these is a spotty special teams resume that’s somewhere between bad and mediocre. 

    Over the past three seasons, Minnesota has converted their power play opportunities into goals at the following rates: 

    • 2020-21 - 17.6%
    • 2021-22 - 20.5%
    • 2022-23 - 21.4%

    That ranks 24th, 18th, and 15th, respectively, per Hockey Reference.

    While it’s an upward trend, the rate of improvement is stalling out. It’s also not good enough when the top unit has boasted at least three of the following elite scorers: Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala, Mats Zuccarello, and Matt Boldy. Most troubling of all? The power play consistently disappears in the postseason. 

    In September of 2022, Evason gave an unusually candid interview with the Athletic. In this interview, Evason revealed not only that special teams were a major training camp priority, but he also laid out his plan through which he hoped to improve them.

    “Yeah, the power play will be more personnel,” he said. “The penalty kill, systematic. On the power play, there’s literally three systems: Umbrella, there’s a spread, there’s the 1-3-1. That’s literally what you can run. Systematically, you won’t see a lot of different stuff. That’ll be more personnel.” 

    The personnel changes were pretty straightforward -- the Wild traded Fiala to the Los Angeles Kings and replaced him on the power play with Boldy. They also removed Jared Spurgeon from power-play quarterbacking duties in favor of rookie defenseman Calen Addison. Given Boldy and Fiala’s similar roles on the power play, one can assume that Evason was hinting at giving Addison the reins when he mentioned “personnel” changes. 

    To Evason’s credit, this worked. On tape, Addison’s power play work from the point is something Minnesota hasn’t seen in nearly a decade. Not only does he make crisp passes and savvy decisions (in his rookie year!), but he also uses his edges to walk the blue line or draw in defenders. He was also comfortable walking into the high slot and shooting when the play called for it. Addison was deserving of the term “quarterback.” 

    When Evason grew frustrated with Addison’s defensive game, the team went in another direction. Evason determined that Addison’s power play abilities didn’t make up for his defensive shortcomings. Whether you agree with this assessment or not, Evason told us that by benching the team’s only true power-play quarterback. While Addison has to own most of his development arc, there’s no question that coaching plays a part.

    Furthermore, expecting an offensive defense prospect to show out in his own zone as a rookie is simply unrealistic and impatient. Taken with the negative impacts on the power play (especially when this was the offseason plan to fix the power play), benching Addison was nothing short of a coaching failure. 

    Sending Addison to the press box wasn’t Minnesota’s only option. Evason could have shaken up his defense pairings to help Addison at five-on-five rather than sticking him with Jon Merrill, an obvious clash in play styles

    He could have deployed a roster of 11 forwards and seven defensemen to open room for a power play specialist, as the St. Louis Blues did against Minnesota in the 2021-22 playoffs. Evason could have gritted his teeth and worked through Addison’s defensive warts, taking a long-term approach to a position, which former coach Bruce Boudreau said takes about 200 games to learn. Instead, Evason reneged against his only plan to improve the power play. In the playoffs, Minnesota scored four power play goals over seven games. 

    In fairness to Evason, the penalty kill has fared better over his tenure. Minnesota’s PK allowed a goal 80.8% of the time in 2020-21 (12th in the league), then 76.1% (25th), then 82.0% (10th). Given that a team’s penalty kill success in a given season can be heavily skewed by goaltending, it can be helpful to use Expected Goals Against per 60 (xGA/60). xGA/60 is a statistic that provides a measure of scoring chances the other team earns weighted by scoring chance quality. Per MoneyPuck.com, over the past few seasons, Minnesota has ranked 14th, 31st, and 10th.

    Evason promised a change to the team’s shorthanded systems. In the same interview, he mentioned that he wanted to turn up the pressure in addition to limiting the other team’s chances. “The obvious thing will be how aggressive we’re going to be,” he said. “That’ll be the different factor. Both on our forecheck and (the opposing) neutral-zone entry, we’re going to be way more aggressive, and we’re also going to be way more aggressive in the zone to put some heat on the team.”

    You can see an example of this aggressive mentality in Joel Eriksson Ek’s shorthanded tally against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    Note how as soon as they win the faceoff, all four players begin to press up the ice. That forced the power play unit to choose between covering Minnesota’s forwards or pressuring the puck carrier. This makes a clearance easier on the puck carrier, or opens up a breakout pass. 

    It also works well because most NHL power play units utilize four forwards, exposing themselves to counterattacks. In this case, forward Evgeni Malkin (71) is uncomfortable defending the rush two-on-two. Malkin turns his head and loses Eriksson Ek which opens a small-area two-on-one rush.

    Minnesota literally steals the man advantage from Pittsburgh’s power play. 
    The “power kill” concept has gained popularity among the hockey analytics community over the past several years. Evason has embraced the concept. In 2022-23, the Wild ranked third in shorthanded goals despite only facing the 13th-most power plays in the league.

    Evason emphasized shorthanded systems changes, but he also changed his personnel.  He replaced mainstays on the 2021-22 penalty kill like Marcus Foligno, Nicolas Deslauriers, and Merrill, with Gustav Nyquist, Connor Dewar, Mason Shaw, and Jake Middleton. It appears that there was a greater emphasis on skating ability among the forwards on this year's kill. 

    That may explain why the Wild’s penalty kill was so ineffective against the Dallas Stars this postseason. Not only was the Dallas power play truly dominant, but missing Eriksson Ek and Shaw to injury forced Minnesota to lean on personnel who did not fit the mold of this new-look penalty kill.

    These two also played on separate shorthanded forward pairings, meaning that the whole system was out of balance.

    However, it seems like Evason has a complicated relationship with creativity. On the one hand, his rigid expectations of what a defenseman should be hamstrung the power play when he benched Calen Addison. On the other, it appears he flexed that creative muscle in every part of his penalty kill to great effect. As boring as a good penalty kill may be, it gives a glimmer of hope that Evason may be the man for the job. For that to work out, he needs to find ways for that creative spirit to take root on the offensive side of his team. 

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    Dewzy is the Rodney Dangerfield of this squad.  He just shows up (undersized and all.  Looking at you Rossi) and goes to work.  He created offensive opportunities while on PK and 5v5 but playing short handed with Reavo on his wing.  Of course Shawzy deserves credit for pk too.  But Dean gets zero credit.  If Dewzy doesn’t get to sniff some top 6 minutes next year, and Dean feeds those minutes to Fred instead I’ll begin the “deans gotta go” petition myself.  

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    Highly touted prospect down the drain as Deano gives up after just a single season worth of games. Maybe Dean tried to piss him off, as he did Rossi, then was steamed that Addison wasn't completely receptive to his advice afterwards.

    Addison looks like a great PP quarterback and should not be thrown away after a single season in the NHL. Development takes time, it just seems like Dean has no patience for it. He would rather plug in a 30 something player he likes from his history and refuse to say anything to them but the most flowery of compliments.

    If we want guys to develop we have to be okay with them making mistakes when moving from the A to the big show. Not every single guy is going to be a Boldy and make a seamless transition.  

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    No respect.

    I’ll take kid from The Pas over Austrian but I’m no Draft Guru.

    Second thought is, the Wild’s special teams are up and down. The stats might show 20% but in reality it’s better or worse for stretches of time. You gotta hope playoffs isn’t when it goes down to pitiful. I believe that’s part of the reality but I also think Ek is way more important to the Wild than people realize. That truly hurt the Wild the worst for this most recent playoff loss. That’s MN luck more than refs or the negligible coaching decisions. We always get crappy refs and the coaches get ripped each year based on everyone armchair quarterbacking.

    I think this year would have been different with Ek at full capacity against Dallas.

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    Addison is effective quarterbacking a power play. He doesn't directly score that frequently, but is quick to move the puck to the playmakers who drive scoring.

    The PP time averages around 4-5 minutes of game time. In the other 55+ minutes, Addison doesn't drive scoring at all and struggles on defense. The Wild improved their points% once they made the commitment to play a more defense first game. The Wild were 15th in points percentage when they made the move, barely hanging on to a playoff position.

    In the 1.5 months that followed, prior to the JEE injury, they rivaled Boston in points percentage and got themselves within striking distance of the #1 seed in the West. Injuries derailed their ability to compete in the playoffs, but I don't think that's a reason to believe the coaching decision to focus on defense there, at the expense of Addison's minutes, was a bad one.

    Addison probably played his best defense in the 8 games he played during that 22 game stretch from February 15th to the end of March where the Wild went 16-2-4, so the benching might have helped.

    Addison and Rossi are young, and could still develop with Minnesota, but we'll see which way Guerin goes. Either of them could be traded individually or packaged with another player that has a higher contract value to try to help out the salary cap situation.

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    The PK was the difference both last year and this year in the playoffs.  So much emphasis was placed on pressuring the puck carrier.  I'm okay with that when they don't have complete control.  But when the opposing team has control the D must retract and keep shots on the outside.  Being patient on the PK is just as important as being patient on the PP.  Until we recognize that we will continue to struggle in the playoffs... regardless of what happens in regular season.

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    I'd hate to see addison or rossi get traded this summer.  We would definitely be selling low.  Put them in an actually position to succeed and gain confidence before throwing them away....

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    What happened to special teams? I thought both units were improved, especially the PK, but then, the playoffs! Simply put, 1 key injury derailed both. 

    No, it was not the absence of Addison on the PP. He is a good QB for the unit, but it was the Ek injury that killed it. He was not adequately replaced. Also, of note, I think Lundell could have replaced him in that position had we picked him! We also could have had a nice net front presence in Alex Tuch. I guess decisions have consequences!

    On the PK, the Ek-Gaudreau pairing was hampered with the Ek injury, the Dewar-Shaw pairing wasn't quite as hampered with the Shaw injury. Duhaime filled in pretty well there. Overall, in the playoffs, if the Stars didn't score in the 1st 10 seconds of the PP, I thought the units did pretty well. That 1st 10 seconds, though, certainly showed the importance of Ek to the unit. 

    Could Rossi have made a difference on the PK? His reported quickness, skating, and IQ probably should have helped, but he may have been too timid this season to show that. I'm sure hoping that next year we get to see the player that his draft profile told us he was!

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