ST. PAUL — Dean Evason’s first game as the Wild’s interim coach could not have gone worse. Finishing off a stretch in which they played 18 of 22 at Xcel Energy Center, the Wild lost 2-0 on Saturday to a San Jose Sharks team that was missing a combined 77 points because of the absences of leading-scorer Erik Karlsson (40 points) and Evander Kane (21 goals and 37 points).
The Sharks had played the night before in Winnipeg, beating the Jets 3-2, while the Wild was rested and supposedly motivated by the firing of coach Bruce Boudreau. The Wild outshot the Sharks, 39-21, but often looked like a team going through the motions and thus lost another opportunity to move closer to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Wild trailed 1-0 when they got a third-period power play that looked so inept the announced crowd of 18,611 at the X let the home team have it on more than one occasion. (The Sharks’ second goal was into an empty net.)
Considering general manager Bill Guerin had surprised everyone by firing Boudreau on Friday morning after a shootout loss to the Rangers and talked about how he expected this team to make a playoff run, Evason’s postgame press conference was certain to be filled with fireworks from an unhappy coach, right?
Nope. Not even close.
Instead, Evason left many in his postgame presser wondering if they had watched the same game he did. Evason seemed content with his team’s play, causing even more confusion about what Guerin was doing in turning to him as coach. Evason, who had been an assistant on Boudreau’s staff the past two seasons, was finally asked if he was satisfied by what he had seen because it sure sounded that way.
“You’re certainly never pleased,” he said. “As I said, we liked what we did as far as how we prepared and our energy. We liked our attempts at the net. I think we had 40 shots and 70 something attempts at the net. We were trying to do the right thing so we like that part of our game. You’re just never pleased when the results aren’t there.”
The Wild long have been a team that usually responds to change — something that can be considered an indictment of their character. This was true on Tuesday when the Wild beat Vegas 4-0 after winger Jason Zucker was traded to Pittsburgh on Monday. But the change to Evason seemed to do nothing for the Wild except take away their interest in hockey. The Sharks are having a lousy season and are missing key players so the Wild couldn’t help but have some success in getting shots on Sharks goalie Martin Jones.
But Minnesota appeared to have little jump and winger Kevin Fiala, who has been brilliant of late, looked like his head was a millions miles away from the ice. Evason, however, somehow failed to see this. His first response about his team’s play was so baffling that he was given a second chance to discuss the lack of urgency.
“We actually mentioned it after the meetings before we went out that the energy level, the feel in the room was really good,” he said. “If anything we thought maybe we were squeezing it a little bit too tight. That we were nervous for whatever reason, nervous energy … I guess maybe it’s not nervous is probably the wrong word, but we were anticipating probably a little bit more and I think we probably lost a bit of energy because of that or expended a little bit of energy because of that but, no, we liked our fit.”
This was a baffling response and creates even more confusion about Guerin’s decision to make a coaching change. Boudreau might not have been perfect and he wasn’t going to return in 2020-21, but at least he saw the Wild’s performances for what they were and not what he hoped it had been.
Given what happened Saturday, one has to figure that the real reason Guerin jettisoned Boudreau is he knew that moving to Evason would sink the Wild’s playoff hopes in quick order. And that’s giving Guerin the benefit of the doubt. There is no way that he could have watched Saturday’s game and thought he really had made a move that would give Minnesota a better chance of getting into the playoffs.
Guerin made an outstanding trade on Monday by dealing Zucker for a 2020 first-round pick, defensive prospect Calen Addison and veteran winger Alex Galchenyuk. The Galchenyuk portion of the move was done for salary purposes and gives the Wild a valuable expiring contract from which they can move on as soon as possible. The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 24 and it won’t be surprising if Guerin moves veteran center Eric Staal and either defensemen Jonas Brodin or Matt Dumba. Like he did at the start of the season, Staal looks as if he’s skating in quicksand.
The Wild have 24 games (14 road, 10 home) remaining in the regular season and finished up this stretch of 18 of 22 at home with an 8-8-2 mark at the X and 10-10-2 overall. This team in no way, shape or form deserves to be in the postseason. Guerin, obviously, isn’t in a position to say that and his owner, Craig Leipold, probably can’t accept it.
But after watching Evason’s team on Saturday, and hearing his thoughts on the game, the only assumption is that Guerin found a way to make sure this season ends as soon as possible.