Wild general manager Bill Guerin proved to be a man of action on Monday.
On the same day his team opened training camp at TRIA Rink in St. Paul to get ready for the NHL’s return to play, Guerin announced the Wild had removed the interim tag from Dean Evason’s title as head coach and, shortly thereafter, made it official that highly touted prospect Kirill Kaprizov had finally signed his two-year, entry-level contract with the team that drafted him in 2015.
The Wild’s flurry of activity followed a 126-day break that began in early March after the coronavirus pandemic caused the NHL and the rest of the sports world to shut down. The Wild spent Monday beginning their preparation to face the Vancouver Canucks in a five-game, qualifying round series in the NHL’s Western Conference bubble in Edmonton. The winner of that series will advance to the NHL’s 16-team playoff tournament.
Here is reaction to both of the Wild’s moves.
WHAT’S THE RUSH
The facts: Evason, who was promoted from assistant to head coach after Bruce Boudreau was fired on Feb. 14, signed a two-year contract extension through the 2020-21 season.
The reaction: Evason went 8-4 as the Wild’s coach before the season came to a halt and had the team playing at a faster pace than Boudreau did. Guerin was impressed with how Evason dealt with the players and also with how he went about his business during the stoppage.
What’s interesting here is the timing.
Evason, who spent 13 seasons playing in the NHL and will turn 56 on Aug. 22, only coached the Wild for 12 games. Players have spoken highly of the changes he made but that’s often the case when an interim coach steps in and provides a new voice in the room. John Torchetti, who took over for Mike Yeo in February 2016 and got the Wild into the playoffs, also went 8-4 in his first 12 games after the Wild had lost eight in a row. Torchetti was passed over for Boudreau after that season.
Evason might be the right man for this job, but why not see how things go in Edmonton and then make a decision? The qualifying round series would have been an excellent opportunity to see how Evason did under the pressure of high-stress games with his team in a bubble environment. Wouldn’t that have helped?
After Boudreau was fired, the feeling among many was Guerin would hire his buddy Doug Weight, who coached the Islanders for parts of two seasons. Gerard Gallant, a veteran NHL coach who led the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Finals in that franchise’s first season, also was available after being fired in January.
Morning Judd: Reaction to Dean Evason getting the Wild job. pic.twitter.com/QUWGwNTBrx
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) July 13, 2020
“To be perfectly honest with you, all along I’d planned on doing a full search,” Guerin said Monday on a video conference. “I was upfront and honest with Dean about that right from the start. But as we kind of went along, and the team played really well under Dean, and then when the pause in the season started, I could see Dean’s communication with the players and how good it was. How the players responded to him and the work that he was putting in.
“As I was discussing with my hockey (operations) group, this is the type of guy that we’re looking for. And if he’s right under our nose right now, I didn’t really feel like I needed to go any further because Dean and I have a good relationship. We get along in the office and when we’re talking hockey and away from the rink as well. So between that and the way he can communicate with the younger players, he’s got the experience of playing in the league, so he can relate to the older players as well. I think he’s got a lot of great experience that these players can lean on for.”
But if things don’t gone well in Edmonton, Guerin would have had some time to conduct a coaching search before the 2020-21 season probably begins in December. Guerin did give himself some wiggle room by not giving Evason a long-term contract. Making a change won’t be all that difficult if the Wild struggle under Evason, especially since one assumes he won’t be breaking the bank.
Clearly, Guerin is hoping what Evason showed him in a dozen games will carry over. That will include continuing to get maximum effort from winger Kevin Fiala, who had nine goals (three game-winners) and seven assists and was a minus-2 with Evason as his coach. (In fairness, Fiala had five goals and eight assists and was a minus-1 in his final 12 games under Boudreau.) There is another player that Evason will get to coach next season who is a big part of the Wild’s plans …
FINALLY, A DONE DEAL
The facts: Left winger Kirill Kaprizov signed his two-year, entry-level contract with that Wild that will begin with the 2019-20 season, but he won’t be eligible to play until 2020-21.
The reaction: If the NHL hadn’t had to shut down because of COVID-19, Kaprizov could have signed his contract last May and stepped right into the lineup, assuming the Wild were still alive in the playoffs. But because of the pandemic, and negotiations between the NHL and the NHL Players Association on a new CBA that has been ratified, Kaprizov was only able to sign his contract but can’t play until next season starts months from now.
A pain? Yes. But it’s far better than the alternative of the 23-year-old having returned to the KHL for another season and this situation dragging out. A fifth-round pick by the Wild in 2015 by then-general manager Chuck Fletcher, Kaprizov has emerged as a top prospect in the NHL and is coming off a season in the KHL in which he had 33 goals, 62 points and a plus-32 rating in 57 games with CSKA Moscow. It marked the second consecutive season that Kaprizov led the league in goals. He also won a gold medal at the 2018 Olympics.
While Kaprizov can’t play for the Wild during the NHL’s return in August, he will be eligible to travel with the team to Edmonton and practice, so he can begin to adjust to life with his new team.
“I will be honest with you. It feels really good to get this done,” said Guerin, the third Wild GM to work on getting the Kaprizov situation resolved, following Fletcher and Paul Fenton. “We’re excited to have Kirill in the mix. As for getting him here, we’re working with his agent right now to get the proper visas, things like that. We’re going to try to get him here as quickly as possible, go jump through any hoops that we have to. Unfortunately he won’t be able to play in any games this year, we’re going to get him in the mix and get him around his new teammates as quickly as we can. I know Deano’s excited about it as well. He’s watched some video on him, and it’s an exciting day. It’s an exciting day for a lot of reasons for the Minnesota Wild and the Wild fans.”
The Wild own Kaprizov’s rights through 2023-24, but are likely to attempt to sign him to a long-term contract after the 2020-21 season, according to the Athletic. The most important thing is that Guerin appears to have cleared the biggest hurdle when it comes to a winger who could be the most dynamic player the Wild have had since Marian Gaborik.