Dean Evason waited 21 years for an opportunity that might have lasted 12 games.
He was named the head coach of the Minnesota Wild on Valentine’s Day, replacing Bruce Boudreau. The 55-year-old Evason first stepped behind the bench with the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers back in 1999, the season his professional playing career ended. He has been a head coach in juniors and in the AHL. He has served as an assistant coach with the Washington Capitals and the Wild. All of that led to this moment, this brief audition for GM Bill Guerin.
Minnesota won eight of the 12 games Evason coached, outscoring opponents 44-35. Yet the Wild sat one point out of a playoff spot with 69 games played as of March 12, when the NHL paused its season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Evason is one of five coaches who were serving on an interim basis when the season suddenly halted. The others are Bob Boughner (San Jose Sharks), Rick Bowness (Dallas Stars), Alain Nasreddine (New Jersey Devils) and Geoff Ward (Calgary Flames).
Two of them are in playoff spots. One is close. The other two, not so much. Here’s a look at where the interim coaches stand and whether they’ve earned permanent gigs.
Dean Evason, Minnesota Wild
There’s no question that in a short amount of time, Evason changed the trajectory and the philosophy for the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild.
“You can compare Bruce and Dean, and I think Bruce was more defense-first. And we’re totally a defensive team,” forward Marcus Foligno told ESPN during the team’s final road trip before the pause. “But the league is just too good now. The defensemen all seem to be good offensive players. You gotta go for offense. You gotta score.”
The Wild had a discernible uptick in offense under Evason. They averaged 3.08 goals per game under Boudreau and 3.67 after he was let go. They were getting increased scoring chances from throughout the lineup.
“I think everybody’s involved. We’re getting our D involved in our offense as much as we can. You look at our back end, and we’re pretty good,” Evason said. “Every hockey player wants to play offense. As long as we work our butts off to get back, as long as we support each other when we get in … if we can create some offense, let’s create some offense.”
That philosophical change might be the point of demarcation between Evason and the coach he assisted, Boudreau.
“He preaches that if you’re going to make mistakes, make offensive mistakes. If you’re trying to score, he’s not going to get mad at you for that,” Foligno said of Evason. “It’s one thing if you don’t get a puck out when you should — he preaches defense. And with our defensemen jumping into the play, the forwards have to support them. But if we make an honest mistake … him saying that has relieved some guys. It’s allowed them to play a bit more freely.”
Although the Wild were playing some firewagon games defensively under Evason, goalie Alex Stalock appreciated the offensive pop.
“There are tweaks we’ve made to our system here. I think we’ve gotten more aggressive in the offensive zone — all over the ice, really. But we haven’t overhauled a ton of stuff,” Stalock said. “He has an energy that he brings that I think is contagious. He’s fired up. He’s excited for his first chance to be a head guy.”
Did he earn the job? This is a big, heaping “maybe.” Let’s say the season is restarted and the Wild end up in a playoff seed, through either completion of the season or an expanded postseason tournament. If Minnesota excels, Evason will get a bit more proof of concept, even if the sample still might not be large enough.
More to the point: If the NHL is playing hockey in the summer, followed by a very abbreviated offseason, followed by next season, would it be in the Wild’s best interests to have Evason already in place? Potentially. As with other interim coaches here, there’s something to be said for hitting the ground running with a familiar voice and system, rather than a change in both.
However, when Guerin fired Boudreau, it wasn’t to find out what he had in Evason; it was to find out what he had on this roster. This is Guerin’s first GM job. One assumes he’d want his own guy in there — someone such as former Islanders teammate Doug Weight or Islanders assistant coach Gerard Gallant, perhaps? But Guerin has said in recent interviews that he has gotten to know Evason during this season in Minnesota and that the interim coach elevated his status in his brief time as a head coach. The smart money is still on a coaching change, but don’t count out Evason.
Bob Boughner, San Jose Sharks
Boughner was promoted from assistant coach to interim head coach on Dec. 11, 2019. The Sharks were a mess: 15-16-2 under Peter DeBoer, with a roster diminished by offseason moves and a porous defense. They had a 2.70 goals-for average and a 3.45 goals-against average, with both Martin Jones and Aaron Dell off to bad starts.
In 37 games under Boughner, the offense continued to struggle (2.51 goals per game), but injuries to key players such as Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and later Erik Karlsson contributed to that. Boughner helped to get the Sharks’ defense on track, bringing their goals-against average down to 3.02.
The Sharks went 14-20-3 under Boughner but were a competitive group on most nights. He has previous head-coaching experience from two seasons with the Florida Panthers, which is something GM Doug Wilson touted when Boughner replaced DeBoer, citing Mike Sullivan, Craig Berube and Bruce Cassidy as examples of coaches who got second chances and thrived.
Did he earn the job? Quite possibly yes. He’s well-liked by the players and did an admirable job under adverse circumstances in what was obviously a lost season. There’s always a chance that Wilson opts for a bigger name in a bid to get this veteran team another title shot — and there are some big names out there — but Boughner has been the “break glass for new coach” option for Wilson since he came to San Jose.
“Does Bob know our group and have the upper hand in this process? Absolutely,” the general manager said recently. “But I think you have to be thorough in this process because we have the time and the opportunity, and when you have time like this, you need to utilize it.”
Rick Bowness, Dallas Stars
Bowness deserves credit for being thrust into a seemingly untenable situation and helping to steady the ship.
Jim Montgomery was shockingly fired on Dec. 10 for “a material act of unprofessionalism,” which the coach later revealed to have been an addiction to alcohol. The Stars began the season 1-7-1 before rallying with a 17-4-2 record thereafter. But their status as a playoff team seemed like it was in jeopardy after Montgomery’s dismissal. Bowness, a longtime assistant coach, hadn’t served as an NHL head coach since 2003-04 with the Coyotes.
He turned out to be exactly what the players needed, extending the work they’d done under Montgomery and changing the tone. “Bones is a little bit more of an upbeat guy. That’s his personality. He’s always got a smile on his face. He’s always the guy to say ‘good morning’ the loudest when he walks into a room,” goalie Ben Bishop said.
But while Dallas remained in third place in the Central Division for most of the season, behind the Blues and Avalanche, the NHL season’s pause effectively meant the Stars were saved by the bell. Bowness’ team was in the midst of a six-game losing streak (0-4-2) and won just three games in an 11-game span. They mustered three goals in their last four games. With 12 games remaining in the regular season, the Stars were only four points clear of Nashville, which resided in the final wild-card spot.
Did he earn the job? No, but not for lack of trying. Bowness was not going to be the long-term solution in Dallas, unless an unforeseen amount of playoff success forced GM Jim Nill’s hand. Bowness is 65 years old. If the Stars had made the playoffs, it would have been just the second time in 501 NHL games that Bowness had coached a team to the postseason.
With the amount of big-name coaches on the market — including two with deep ties to Nill in Gerard Gallant and Mike Babcock — it’s hard to imagine the interim tag being ripped off of Bowness, especially when you consider how much credit the veteran core of the Stars probably deserves for keeping the team on track after Montgomery’s firing.
“We have some guys that have been around for a while. Does that help in those situations? Maybe a little bit. We know how to play as a team and can help other guys along,” forward Andrew Cogliano said.
Alain Nasreddine, New Jersey Devils
Coach John Hynes was the first domino to tumble in the New Jersey Devils’ lost season, getting fired on Dec. 3, 2019, after a 9-14-4 start that put his squad one Detroit Red Wings team away from worst in the NHL. Taylor Hall was traded 13 days later. On Jan. 12, 2020, the guy who traded him, GM Ray Shero, was fired. When the dust settled, Tom Fitzgerald was the interim GM, and Nasreddine was the interim coach.
When the season was paused, the Devils were better than five other teams in the standings, and Nasreddine had a winning record as head coach, at 19-16-8. Despite dealing away Hall, missing Nico Hischier for a bit and having Jack Hughes be a nonfactor in his rookie season, the Devils’ offense improved slightly (2.79 goals per game) under Nasreddine compared to where it was under Hynes (2.56). They played the same system but played a bit faster and with improved puck movement out of their own zone. That also helped the defense, as the Devils went from a 3.74 goals-against average under Hynes to a 3.00 under Nasreddine.
But the reason the Devils were better — if not necessarily great — was Mackenzie Blackwood. The rookie goalie appeared in 47 games, went 22-14-8 and finished 11th in the NHL in goals saved above average (12.6). With zero expectations and all but out of the playoff race, the unburdened Devils played better under Nasreddine. But his success was directly tied to that of his goaltender.
Did he earn the job? There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with the uncertainty with the offseason. Assuming the Devils have time for a coaching search and a full training camp, Nasreddine is probably finished. If the timeline is truncated, knowing they’re in a rebuild again, perhaps he isn’t.
The bigger question is who makes that decision. Fitzgerald is an interim GM. The Devils have already had discussions with former Canucks GM Mike Gillis. There have probably been others. General managers like to hire their own coaches. Few would feel a sense of loyalty to an assistant coach they didn’t hire, who took over a team and led it all the way to 26th in the league. Most of the signs point to a one-and-done for Nasreddine.
Geoff Ward, Calgary Flames
Ward has some connections to other interim coaches this season. He and Nasreddine were hired as assistants when Hynes took over the Devils in 2015. Like Bowness, Ward was thrust into this for reasons other than wins and losses, as Flames coach Bill Peters resigned Nov. 29 amid allegations of racial slurs and physical abuse of players.
The Flames were a middling 12-12-4 under Peters after qualifying for the playoffs in his first season in Calgary and losing to Colorado in five games. They improved significantly in the standings under Ward, going 24-15-3 and sitting third in the Pacific Division before the pause. Only three teams in the Western Conference — Colorado, Vegas and St. Louis — had better records than the Flames’ during Ward’s time at the helm.
Although the Flames’ defense slipped from 3.04 goals against per game under Peters to 3.10 under Ward, they rediscovered their offense with their new coach: After sputtering along at 2.50 goals per game with Peters, in 42 games with Ward, they averaged 3.33.
That said, this isn’t an open-and-shut case. Ward took heat for his line scrambling during the season and some odd personnel management, from his handling of the goalies to his failed experiment with Mikael Backlund on the wing.
Did he earn the job? “Not at this point.” That was GM Brad Treliving’s assessment when asked in late March about taking the interim tag off of Ward.
“That’s not to be taken either way. We were in the middle of the last month of our season, and all of sudden it stopped, like running a 100-meter dash in an 80-meter gym,” Treliving said. “That’s certainly an issue that’s got to be addressed at some point. I don’t know when it is, but we have to work on these other files and get clarification on whether the season is coming back.”
In other words, like in all of these interim coach cases, what the NHL does with this season, the offseason and the start of next season will play into this decision, as will the availability of some attractive veteran coaching candidates. But Ward has the largest body of work of these interim coaches — and the best results in the standings. He’s a talented coach who has waited for his turn at the helm, and though the journey wasn’t perfect, the Flames excelled.
In a season of uncertainty, Ward certainly seems to have the best shot at sticking around.