He took over behind the bench in February as a relative nobody when Bruce Boudreau was fired. He started to endear himself to the Twin Cities in March with the Wild firing on all cylinders before the coronavirus pandemic stopped the 2019-20 season in its tracks. He sat around and waited in April, May and June, then finally got some job security in July when the “interim” tag was removed from his job title.
Now, as Evason prepares for his first playoff series at the man in charge, he is focused on living in the moment. At age 55, he is a head coach in the NHL for the first time in his life.
“Is it a relief?” he wondered. “I don’t know if it’s a relief or not. It’s just extremely exciting to have the opportunity going forward here. We are looking forward to getting it going.”
Asked earlier this week how his team has responded to his message, Evason immediately changed the narrative and preached togetherness. Just like he has since he took over on Feb. 14.
“My team? No. Our team? Yeah,” Evason said. “I think ‘our team’ has got a nice feel to it.”
That answer is why general manager Bill Guerin felt Evason was the perfect guy to lead the Wild during these unprecedented times.
“This is the type of guy that we’re looking for,” Guerin said. “If he’s right under our nose right now, I didn’t really feel like I needed to go any further.”
As the Wild prepare for their five-game qualifying series with the Vancouver Canucks with Game 1 starting at 9:30 p.m. Sunday in Edmonton, Evason is confident his team is ready to make a run. He has preached togetherness since taking over and feels like that could be a difference-maker right now.
“They are really playing for each other,” the coach said. “That’s one of the biggest things we talked about before the (coronavirus) pause. We have a commitment to the team game and playing for each other. That’s had a really good feel to it.”
Communication is key
Ask any player about Evason and the first thing they talk about: his communication skills.
While it sounds simple on the surface, effective communication is not always common in the professional ranks.
There are still many coaches who use mind games as a way to motivate, and that can rub players the wrong way.
That’s not Evason. He’s an open book, and that has endeared himself to his players.
“His communication skills are unbelievable, and I think that’s so huge with any group of athletes,” goaltender Alex Stalock said. “He does a great job clearing the air and making sure we all know what the right thing is to do when it comes to situations and plays. There’s never a question unanswered.”
That’s something Stalock is getting to watch play out in real time. Locked into a position battle with fellow goaltender Devan Dubnyk, an accomplished veteran, there has been a refreshing open dialogue with everyone involved.
That has been a common theme with Evason no matter than circumstance.
“He reaches everyone, from the youngest to the oldest,” winger Marcus Foligno said. “He does such a good job delivering his message. There’s no nonsense, especially when it comes to executing and work ethic. It starts with our leaders and goes right on down.”
Maybe the biggest thing that has gotten players to buy in is that Evason hasn’t changed his style or methods since moving from assistant coach to the man in charge. He was intense as an assistant, and he conducts himself the same way now. That authenticity goes a long way.
“He has the same tendencies and same demeanor,” veteran defenseman Ryan Suter said. “He knows when to push guys, and he knows when to take it easy on them. He’s done a really good job. Hopefully we can continue to play well for him.”
Unlocking a star
There’s no doubt that 24-year-old winger Kevin Fiala reaching the next level in his development played a role in Evason getting the interim tag removed.
It has become clear that Evason gets more out of Fiala, a speedy skater from Switzerland who came to the Wild late last season in a trade with Nashville, than former coach Bruce Boudreau ever could, which makes sense considering both guys essentially have been attached at the hip going back to their time with the Predators organization.
Not that it’s always been rainbows and butterflies. They butted heads many times in the minors, when Evason was his coach and was relentless in trying to make Fiala a more complete player.
“We have had our challenges,” Evason said. But “I’ve really enjoyed the process that Kevin’s gone through. Just watching the process he’s gone through from when he first came over to where he is now, it’s exciting because of the work he’s put in.”
In hindsight, Fiala is grateful for Evason’s tough love. He recognizes now that he didn’t have all the answers, even if he thought he did when he turned pro as a teenager.
“He’s been behind my success, a very huge part of it,” Fiala said. “He’s helped me on the ice and off the ice since I was 18 years old. He taught me a lot of things.”
Those things were on display when Evason took over as Wild head coach — and Fiala responded with the best stretch of his career. In the 12 games that Evason was in charge behind the bench, Fiala put up 16 points and consistently was the most dynamic player on the ice. He credits Evason with helping him make that jump.
“He trusted me,” Fiala said. “He has big confidence in me, and that helps me be who I am and be confident out there. He gave me a lot of ice time, and I appreciated it and wanted to give something back to him. My confidence level is high, and he gave me that, so I’m very thankful.”
Not surprisingly, Evason didn’t want any credit for Fiala’s rise.
“It’s all Kevin,” Evason said. “It’s within him. He has that inner drive that allows him to have success. We are all excited to see the way he’s been playing, for sure.”
Playing more free
It’s not only Fiala who feels more comfortable with Evason in charge. As a whole, the Wild have looked like a different team on the ice.
“He understands that mistakes are made,” winger Zach Parise said. “I think the guys have started to play a little more free out there, and it’s been a good change for our team.”
It’s not that Evason wants his players to make mistakes. He just doesn’t want them to be afraid to do so. That has bred more creativity from everyone involved and in turn made the Wild more dangerous in most situations.
“We are playing with a little more pace,” center Eric Staal said. “I think it changed our game, and our confidence has grown because of that. We were rolling pretty good before the break. Hopefully we can keep that going.”
There’s also a noticeable energy that Evason brings to the ice. In an average practice, he might skate more than any coach in the league. His voice is also almost always hoarse after games.
That’s the same way Evason has conducted himself during his rise up the ranks, and it’s finally paying off as the Wild seem ready to go heading into the postseason.
“They are sticking together and playing hard together,” Evason said. “You feed off each other. You push each other. You have each other’s back. I think our group has done that, and we look forward to continuing to do that.”
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