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Judd Zulgad

Everything To Prove

Plenty of postseason demons for Evason, Wild to exorcise vs. Stars

Wild head coach Dean Evason looks on as assistant Darby Hendrickson barks instructions during Minnesota's 5-3 win over the Washington Capitals on March 19, 2023 at Xcel Energy Center. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

This spring marks 20 years since the Wild made their franchise-best playoff run to the Western Conference finals. Fans who watched that unexpected and remarkable journey have many great memories: Richard Park’s overtime goal in Game 6 of the first round against Colorado; Andrew Brunette’s OT goal the following night that eliminated the Avalanche; and the Wild rallying from down 3-1 against both the Avs and Canucks to win the first two series.

One of the biggest reasons for the Wild’s success was the man behind the bench. Jacques Lemaire, a part of eight Stanley Cup winning teams as a player with Montreal and a Cup winning coach with New Jersey in 1994-95, proved to be a marvelous tactician as he outcoached the inexperienced Tony Granato and the Canucks’ Marc Crawford before the Wild was swept in the conference finals by Anaheim.

Lemaire’s coaching, combined with his players’ work ethic, a commitment to playing within a certain structure, the presence of two quality goaltenders and star winger Marian Gaborik, made the improbable possible.

Sound familiar?

The NHL has opened up its game to be a far more exciting product than it was in 2003, but this Wild team has many of the same qualities. There might not be a lot of star talent up front but winger Kirill Kaprizov is among the league’s most dynamic players and there is no doubting the work ethic of those around him. There also is a structure to the system that was lacking last season. Filip Gustavsson and veteran Marc-Andre Fleury provide a solid 1-2 punch in goal, just as Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson did 20 years ago.

The X-factor as the Wild gets set to start their opening round series at Dallas on Monday is coach Dean Evason.

Evason has done an excellent job in the regular season since taking over for Bruce Boudreau in February 2020. In three full seasons, Evason has guided the Wild to a 75-point and third-place finish in 2020-21 (a pandemic-impacted season was only 56 games); a 113-point and second-place finish in the Central Division in 2021-22; and a 103-point and third-place finish in the Central this season.

Former Wild coach Bruce Boudreau talks strategy with assistant coach Dean Evason in a Jan. 12, 2020 game vs. Vancouver at Xcel Energy Center. Evason would replace Boudreau 33 days later while Boudreau would eventually take over behind the Canucks’ bench. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

But that success has not carried into the playoffs for the Wild or Evason. Evason’s issues in the playoffs date far beyond his arrival in Minnesota. He was given a pass for how the 2020 season ended, considering it was halted in early March because of the pandemic and didn’t resume until the Wild took part in the playoff qualifying tournament that August in the Edmonton bubble. Minnesota won the opening game of the best-of-five series against Vancouver before dropping the next three.

The following season, the Wild lost in seven games in the opening round to the Vegas Golden Knights and last season went out in six games against the St. Louis Blues, despite having home-ice advantage. That series was concerning because while Blues coach Craig Berube was willing to make quick adjustments — including replacing goalie Ville Husso with Jordan Binnington with the Blues trailing 2-1 — Evason seemed intent on standing pat.

The Wild was on the brink of elimination by the time Evason decided to sit Fleury and start Cam Talbot in goal for Game 6. The Blues cruised to a 5-1 and outscored Minnesota 15-5 in the final three games. It would have been one thing if Talbot had been a backup all season, but he was the Wild’s primary starter before Fleury was acquired at the trade deadline and finished the regular season on a 13-0-3 run.

Minnesota goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury gloves a puck blasted off the stick of St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko, one of 32 for Fleury in the Wild’s 6-2 win over the Blues in Game 2 of their Stanley Cup playoff first-round series on May 4, 2022 at Xcel Energy Center. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Evason’s failure to make changes was bewildering considering the urgency that comes in the playoffs and the necessity for a coach to make tough and sometimes unpopular decisions.

Wild general manager Bill Guerin, who welcomes tough decisions and always has high expectations, likely will be very interested to see how his coach handles this series. 

What will make this more interesting is Evason’s lack of postseason success as a head coach at any level.

He spent six seasons leading the Nashville Predators’ American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee and guided the Admirals to four playoff appearances. This resulted in a 1-12 record and four first-round exits. 

Evason’s time in junior hockey was only slightly more successful.

He spent six seasons in the Western Hockey League — coaching Kamloops, Vancouver and Calgary, where he was co-coach in 2004-05 — with his teams winning two first-round series and never getting past the second round.

The Wild, with or without Evason, have had about as much playoff success as their coach. Minnesota hasn’t advanced beyond the second round since Lemaire’s team overachieved in the franchise’s third season and the last time they won a first-round series was in 2015 with Mike Yeo behind the bench. The Wild have been in the playoffs in seven of the past eight seasons, if you include the qualifying round in 2020, but have gone 10-23 in losing in the opening round each time.

Wild GM Bill Guerin expresses his displeasure during Minnesota’s 5-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on March 18, 2023 at Xcel Energy Center (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Despite likely being without top center Joel Eriksson Ek in this series because of a lower body injury, there is an expectation both internally and externally that it’s time for the Wild to end their playoff drought. This current stretch of first-round defeats began in 2016 with a 4-2 series loss to Dallas and now it can end with a victory over the franchise that was based in Minnesota before relocating 30 years ago.

For that to happen, Evason is going to have to get the best of Dallas coach Pete DeBoer, who was Vegas’ coach two years ago when the Golden Knights eliminated the Wild. Evason, like Lemaire, is going to have to push many of the right buttons and make quicker adjustments than he often does in the regular season. Line shuffling, goalie changes and sitting veterans he likes are part of the job description this time of year.

If Evason doesn’t do those things, Guerin will have to start considering whether he has the right guy coaching his team when it matters most.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Mackey and Judd podcast and also Judd’s Hockey Show for SKOR North. Judd covered the Vikings from 2005 to 2010 for the Star Tribune before joining SKOR North.

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