Dean Evason earned his first victory as the Wild’s interim coach in Vancouver, with a 4-3 shootout win Feb. 19 that his three kids witnessed in person.
“Fond memories for me to have my children there watching,” Evason said.
But the next matchup with the Canucks also will be special.
The Wild and Vancouver will square off in a qualifying round to advance to the Stanley Cup playoffs ... if the NHL returns to finish the 2019-20 season after the league was put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have an opportunity to get in, and we’re certainly looking at it as the first round of the playoffs, old school, back in the day when we started with best-of-fives to start the playoffs,” Evason said.
The NHL rolled out its plan for salvaging the season if given the go-ahead by medical and government officials. Its solution was to officially end the regular season and implement a 24-team tournament. The top 12 teams in each conference will compete; the top four will meet in a round robin to determine first-round seeding, and the remaining eight will face off in a best-of-five to join them.
A point shy of a playoff spot when the season stalled on March 12, the Wild could have been on the outside looking in.
“Essentially we’re in the playoffs, and we have an opportunity,” Evason said. “As close as we were, it would clearly be very devastating if we weren’t going to get in because of one point separating us.
“From [owner] Craig Leipold to [General Manager] Billy Guerin, we’ve all been extremely positive and optimistic that we’re going to be able to play and finish the season and award a Stanley Cup. We’re just excited about having the opportunity to battle for it.”
With training camps not starting until at least July, Evason plans to drive from the Twin Cities to his native Canada, where he’ll quarantine for two weeks after arrival. His wife, Genevieve, is a flight attendant based out of Montreal.
Vancouver (36-27-6) was only one point ahead of the Wild (35-27-7) in the standings at the pause. On the upswing after missing the playoffs the past four years, the Canucks have been rebuilding around youngsters Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes and Burnsville’s Brock Boeser.
The veteran-laden Wild scored six fewer goals than the Canucks while giving up only three more, but both power plays ranked in the top 11. Where Vancouver had the upper hand was in team save percentage, a nod to goalie Jacob Markstrom.
“The goaltending is real good,” Evason said. “Just a good solid group and well-coached. … We’re very evenly matched.”
While he hasn’t started to watch video on Vancouver, Evason said the team will study the Canucks during training camp. The coach has gone golfing with his staff at least once a week.
Getting back soon?
Evason has prepared for a two-week camp, and he’s heard about exhibition games being possible.
Players have been working out differently during the stoppage, Evason said, but everyone’s operating under their summer programs. Once teams open their facilities — likely this month — for voluntary small workouts, Evason expects to see players begin to congregate.
“The quicker a team comes together, the better opportunity you’re going to have to have success,” he said. “We like where our group was as far as how we felt about us being a team when we ended, so we anticipate that we should hopefully slide right back into being that way.”
The Wild can expand its roster by pulling in players — such as American Hockey League MVP Gerry Mayhew and AHL Goalie of the Year Kaapo Kahkonen — from the minors, but Evason isn’t projecting an overhaul.
He plans to evaluate players during camp, and has received analytical insight into what line combinations worked well. But the Wild’s lineup could look like the one that won eight of the previous 12 games under Evason before the NHL shut down.
“Certainly there might be areas where somebody gets hot in a certain area offensively or is defending extremely well that we put them in a little bit different role,” Evason said. “But I anticipate basically being the same group.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean Alex Stalock returns as the No. 1 goalie after wrestling the starting duties away from three-time All-Star Devan Dubnyk. Evason said the team hasn’t decided on who would start a Game 1.
“We expect our goaltenders both to be ready and have that opportunity to make that choice as a staff — and hopefully a very difficult one because they’ll both be ready to go,” he said.
The Kaprizov question
It’s unclear if unsigned Russian forward Kirill Kaprizov will be part of this equation. The NHL has to work with the Players’ Association to decide if players signed during the hiatus would be eligible for this season, but its position is they won’t be. Kaprizov, 23, had 33 goals for CSKA Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League this season.
“If he’s here, then obviously he’s going to be competing for a job just the same as the Iowa guys that are coming up,” Evason said. “We’ll evaluate obviously daily once we see who’s here.”
Like the players, Evason, too, would be under the microscope if the Wild reconvenes. Nothing has changed with his interim status in the months since the Wild stopped playing, he said, but the time off has shed more light on what could be next for him and the Wild and that’s opportunity.
“The only thing I can control is how I do things and how I work and, as a staff, I feel real good about ourselves working extremely well together and working as a team,” Evason said. “[I’m] looking forward to getting back and getting into the room and doing that.”