While the bus rumbled away after the game, Dean Evason sat by his Hartford Whalers teammate Dave Tippett and relived the action.
They mulled the team’s forecheck, its penalty kill and the power play. Evason remembered the conversation from his playing days clearly as an example of why Tippett was likely to become a coach.
“He was constantly talking hockey,” Evason recalled.
But Tippett, who has coached the Stars, Coyotes and Oilers, wasn’t the only one in that conference who’d end up behind the bench.
After 20 years of working as a head coach in juniors and the minors and as an NHL assistant, Evason took over his first NHL club Feb. 14 as interim coach of the Wild.
His tenure started out successfully, with the team going on an 8-4 run to climb one point shy of a playoff spot with 13 games to go. But Evason’s audition to permanently replace the fired Bruce Boudreau was interrupted last month when the coronavirus pandemic halted play.
Now, as the hockey world waits to see if the NHL will resume the season, Evason’s chance to continue his case hangs in the balance — limbo for the 55-year-old after he finally achieved a longtime goal.
“As [a] staff, I think we feel like we’ve done some good things,” Evason said. “Obviously, we wanted to have more of a big picture. When you get into a position like this, you want to have an opportunity to show as much as you possibly can. Hopefully we’ve done enough to show that we can do the job and do the job going forward.”
Still in charge
Once the season was paused, Wild General Manager Bill Guerin said Evason would remain in charge for the time being, and that hasn’t changed.
If the Wild gets back on the ice to finish 2019-20, Evason will be at the helm. It’s also possible he has a leg up on whatever candidate list Guerin has in mind since Guerin isn’t currently conducting interviews.
“I just don’t think that would be fair to Dean, and I’ve been very happy with him,” Guerin said this week. “So, I’m not in a rush.”
In the aftermath of dismissing Boudreau, Guerin made it clear Evason would be considered for the gig full-time. Accountability, drive, passion, character and compete were the attributes Guerin said he expected from a coach, and although Evason can’t flex all his coaching chops during this hiatus, Guerin still can gain insight into the way Evason operates.
The two were actually scheduled to golf together Monday.
“In times like this that are kind of unordinary that’s probably when you learn the most,” Guerin said. “Dean and I have remained in contact through this thing. We don’t talk every day, but we’ve remained in contact. … He’s ready to go, and things I like about him are his competitiveness.
“He’s got a fire in him. He’s got great communication skills with players and me. He seems to be a real student of the game and able to teach what he’s learned. I really like that.”
Feedback from the players also has been positive.
With the coaching change coming more than two-thirds through the season, the timing wasn’t conducive to a major overhaul — especially with the Wild in contention for the playoffs.
Still, Evason implemented tweaks that called for an up-tempo style; he said he’d tolerate aggressive mistakes but not passive ones. And the Wild responded.
“He did a great job,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “He had made some subtle changes, didn’t change a whole lot. I think he knew the personnel, which was a huge benefit for him, for us, and I think guys just said, ‘OK.’ Maybe it was a wake-up call for our team to pick it up and get going.”
Even though the Wild wasn’t hurting for offense before the switch, scoring took off under Evason.
During his 12-game span, the Wild buried a league-high 43 goals. Winger Kevin Fiala continued his second-half tear as one of the NHL’s most productive players. And the group found ways to win, via rallies and routs.
The penalty kill also improved, ranking fourth since Evason’s promotion after being 30th up to that point.
“We felt we played with a lot of excitement, a lot of energy, a lot of speed, and we were playing the game the right way,” Evason said.
Overall, the team’s 8-4 record since Feb. 15 ranked as one of the best clips in the NHL.
“You want to feel that, that you have the confidence and you feel that the team is going the right direction at that moment and just to give us the chance to get to the playoffs,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “And I think that was the mind-set that he had. … With the results that we got, you’ve got to be happy with it.”
Ready to return
Evason feels encouraged about the job he and the rest of the coaching staff has done, but he also realizes what’s next is out of his control.
“What we did we did,” he said. “Hopefully we get another opportunity to continue to prove that we can get the job done going forward.”
He liked the communication between the coaches and management, and he felt the players were in lockstep. Evason sensed being on the same page was a priority of Guerin’s, and Evason saw that buy-in from the team.
“I think he liked the way we were playing as a group together,” said Evason, who was hired as an assistant by former GM Paul Fenton before last season. “You’d have to ask him as far as anything else he liked or disliked.”
Despite not knowing if the season will restart, Evason is prepared if it does — already having hashed out a plan for training camp with his assistants and examining if the team will have to play to capitalize on whatever amount of runway is left.
“It’s day by day,” he said, “and we’ll see what happens.”
Becoming a coach wasn’t a future Evason envisioned for himself while he was suiting up. When he played, appearing in more than 800 NHL games, he was focused on being physically ready and mentally sharp.
“He was competitive, do anything to win,” said Tippett, the current coach of the Oilers. “We played together a long time. Great teammate but just a real competitive guy [and] understands roles that players need to have.”
Not until a career starts to wind down does Evason believe a player contemplates the next chapter.
“The closest thing to playing is standing behind that bench,” he said.
Fast forward to this year and he’s the latest Hartford alum to enter the NHL head coaching fraternity, joining the likes of Tippett and Joel Quenneville — this after Evason was previously an assistant in Washington and spent six years leading Nashville’s AHL squad.
Getting where he is now, though, was what he strove for, an opportunity that has been delayed if not ultimately cut short.
That’s what Evason is waiting to find out, yet another outcome at stake with this season’s resolution.
“What if? I don’t know,” Evason said. “We still hope and are very optimistic about not only if we get a season but how things went and how things hopefully will go forward. That’s what our thought process is. Who knows how it’s going to end.”