Pucks slammed into goalie pads with a thud, skate shavings went flying, and sticks clapped against the ice.
For the first time in four months, the Wild practiced at Tria Rink in St. Paul — kicking off training camp with all the familiar sights and sounds despite restarting in mid-July after the coronavirus pandemic halted the season in March.
But that wasn’t the only reason why Monday was significant.
In a pair of moves that make the team’s future clearer, the Wild removed Dean Evason’s interim tag and named the former assistant its fifth head coach in franchise history, and it locked up coveted prospect Kirill Kaprizov with a two-year, entry-level contract.
“It’s an exciting day,” General Manager Bill Guerin said. “It’s an exciting day for a lot of reasons.”
Ever since Guerin dismissed Bruce Boudreau on Feb. 14 and promoted Evason, he intended to conduct a thorough search for a replacement — which he told Evason from the start.
The pause in the season put a pin in those plans, but Evason already had a case in the works.
Not only did the Wild perform well under his direction, going 8-4 to edge into the playoff picture enough to be included in the 24-team tournament as part of the NHL’s return-to-play plan, but Guerin also felt Evason had a strong rapport with the players and his work ethic during the downtime was noticeable.
“He didn’t act like an interim coach or a part-time guy,” Guerin said. “He was a coach, and he understood that and took that leadership role and was constantly communicating with the players, finding out what they were doing, where they were at, if they were healthy.
“Dean’s got a really good mix of intensity and fire and then compassion for the guys, and an understanding for the guys, and that’s what I really liked.”
Ultimately, Guerin made the decision a month ago to keep Evason. And after talking about it with his staff and owner Craig Leipold, he was confident it was the right move. Evason signed a two-year extension that runs through 2021-22.
“This is the type of guy that we’re looking for,” Guerin said. “And if he’s right under our nose right now, I didn’t really feel like I needed to go any further.
“I wanted Dean to be able to walk into the hub as the head coach and we’ll get rid of that interim tag. This is something that he’s worked long and hard for, and he’s earned it.”
Although this is Evason’s first head coaching position in the NHL, he’s seasoned.
Before joining the Wild as an assistant in 2018, he was a head coach in the minors and junior ranks and an assistant with Washington for seven seasons. The 55-year-old is also a former player, suiting up for more than 800 NHL games.
“I’ve had many experiences to get to this opportunity,” Evason said. “I’m going to draw on all of them and obviously lean on the staff, clearly. We’ve got a great hockey staff here that is very committed.
“I put high expectations on myself to be the best coach that I possibly can, to lead the group to have success. So that’s what we’re going to do.”
His first order of business is preparing the Wild for its best-of-five qualifying matchup against Vancouver that starts Aug. 2 in Edmonton.
Kaprizov isn’t eligible to participate, but he will be able to practice with the team and accompany it to the games — the upside to burning the first year of his deal. The 23-year-old Russian winger, whom the Wild drafted in the fifth round in 2015, isn’t paid for the 2019-20 half of his contract, but he’ll receive a $92,500 signing bonus to go along with an $832,500 salary in 2020-21. He can also earn up to $925,000 in performance bonuses.
With the talented scorer waiting in the wings, next season could feel more tantalizing than the present. But considering what’s already happened, there’s no telling what’s in store for the Wild.
After getting off to the worst start in franchise history, the Wild needed an 11-game point streak in November and December to begin to claw back to equilibrium. It was still up-and-down leading up to Boudreau’s exit, but once Evason took over, the Wild was on the upswing. Second-half sparkplugs Kevin Fiala and backup Alex Stalock led the way, this after Devan Dubnyk missed time for family reasons and Zach Parise was nearly traded at the deadline.
Now, everyone’s back together — the same group as before but one that’s still embarking on a new chapter.
“We’re excited and happy that we’re getting this opportunity,” Evason said.