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Zulgad: Guerin Feels The Heat

Dean Evason’s firing turns up the heat on Bill Guerin.

Wild general manager watches his team play during the 2022-23 season from high above the ice at the Xcel Energy Center. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Any question about whether Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin needed to make a coaching change was answered in the aftermath of the team’s seventh consecutive loss on Sunday afternoon in Detroit.

The Wild’s latest lifeless performance resulted in a 4-1 defeat and had coach Dean Evason searching for answers he didn’t have. In what had been a mostly disastrous season, the Wild had tried everything to jump start a team that was struggling from top to bottom.

Players-only meetings, individual meetings between team leaders and Evason, a meeting in which Guerin chewed out the players. Nothing had worked and the Wild were sitting only two points ahead of Chicago and San Jose at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

There was only one thing left to do.

Evason’s dismissal was announced late Monday afternoon and his successor, former Devils and Predators coach John Hynes, was introduced on Tuesday morning as the Wild’s new (not interim) coach.

Evason’s supporters had been quick to point out that the Wild isn’t that good of team and that Guerin had plenty to do with the problems, given he was the guy who put the roster together and the guy who put the team in salary-cap hell with his decision to buy out the contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in 2021.

That is true, but there is a difference between being a bad team and being a disinterested team and the Wild appeared to be guilty of the latter offense on far too many nights this season.

New head coach John Hynes (left) and Wild general manager Bill Guerin (right) meet with the media at Hynes’ introductory news conference on Nov. 28, 2023. (MHM Photo / Heather Rule)

Odds are good the move to the 48-year-old Hynes will provide a spark for the Wild. At least a short-term one. That’s the way the NHL works. A different voice with a new message gets the type of attention that often isn’t given to the bench boss who has been around for a few years.

In Evason’s case, his tenure in Minnesota dated to when he joined former coach Bruce Boudreau’s staff in 2018. Boudreau was fired in February 2020 and Guerin replaced him with Evason. Evason had regular-season success — he went 147-77-27 (the last figure is overtime and shootout losses) and back-to-back 100-plus point seasons — but he went 0-4 in playoff series.

That might have been a concern for the Wild, but it wasn’t enough to question Evason’s job security. But a 5-10-4 start to the season was more than owner Craig Leipold and Guerin could stomach.

Some thought the Wild’s putrid start presented a perfect opportunity for the team to take its lumps and focus on the draft lottery, but anyone who has been around Leipold or Guerin knew that wasn’t going to happen.

Guerin has made it clear that he expects to win, even with his team’s salary-cap issues. Guerin and Hynes have a history from their time in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization when the former was a player development coach and assistant general manager and the latter coached the Penguins’ affiliate in the American Hockey League.

This hiring will be considered underwhelming by many. Hynes coached New Jersey for four-plus seasons before being fired during the 2019-20 season and then spent three-plus years behind the bench in Nashville before his dismissal after last season.

His teams have made four playoff appearances but, like Evason’s clubs, have never gotten past the first round. Hynes is 4-15 in the postseason; Evason was 8-15.

The guy who now will be feeling the heat is Guerin. The discouraging thing about the Wild’s meltdown under Evason was how much it resembled the work, or lack of work, put forth by the players that Guerin inherited and began moving after taking the general manager’s job.

Guerin’s purpose in buying out Parise and Sutter, and trading away other familiar names, was to reset the culture of an organization that had too many guys who worried about themselves more than the team.

So how did the Wild end up right back in this spot?

The current roster isn’t filled with top-level players, but the guys who are supposed to carry the team aren’t coming close. Kirill Kaprizov had been a no-show for much of the season before emerging a bit in recent games. Mats Zuccarello, Matt Boldy and Marcus Johansson have underwhelmed since getting new contracts.

Ryan Hartman, Marcus Foligno and struggling goalie Filip Gustavsson also have gotten extensions since the end of last season. All of this is why Guerin isn’t going to admit his team’s fate is sealed. Not when he’s the one who handed out the extensions.

Guerin’s next move is turning to Hynes in hope that he can stop the bleeding and save the season. If that doesn’t happen, Guerin will be the next guy left searching for answers.

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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