John Shipley: Wild coaching change has worked, but it’s still up to the players

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Back on Nov. 8, Bill Guerin had seen enough from Calen Addison, a young defenseman with a mostly offensive upside that the Wild GM had dragged his feet on, finally signing him to a one-year deal days before training camp started.

The Wild had played 12 games, and Guerin used the only real tool a salary-cap challenged team has at its disposal to replace him, trading Addison to San Jose for a low-end prospect and draft pick, then acquiring Zach Bogosian from Tampa Bay for a seventh-round draft pick.

The takeaway?

“I don’t need 70 games to figure out what we need,” Guerin said at the time.

So, when the Wild were staggering to the quarter pole — losers of seven straight, and 11 of 13 overall — Guerin made another, bigger move to improve his team, firing head coach Dean Evason and replacing him with John Hynes. And while the Wild remain buried in the Western Conference standings, it’s clear that Guerin’s move has worked.

Since Hynes became the coach Nov. 28, the Wild are 5-2-0 and, frankly, haven’t looked bad in any of those seven games. Even in a 2-0 loss at Vancouver last Thursday, they held the NHL’s best-scoring team to a pair of goals.

As the Wild return to practice Wednesday to prepare for Thursday’s 7 p.m. puck drop against the Calgary Flames at Xcel Energy Center, there is ample evidence to suggest that, quite simply, the Wild are a better team than they were during a 5-10-4 start.

It’s also clear that whether that lasts, and the Wild somehow dig out of the hole they have dug for themselves, it will be on the players. Evason’s dismissal was a cold glass of water to the face for players. There are plenty of stats to explain why the WIld are winning, but no one who has watched this team since its season opener on Oct. 12 needs numbers to explain how much more engaged the players have been since the change.

The eye test will do, and as the players have acknowledged, that’s on them.

They might have been tired of listening to Evason, maybe bored with playing the same system, or discouraged because they had won two straight games only once. But it was clear to anyone watching, the effort was rarely there. And if you want numbers, try these. When Evason was fired, the Wild had surrendered a league-high 27 first-period goals — outscored 27-15 — and had the NHL’s worst penalty kill (66.7 percent).

Hockey is a game of small competitions, from faceoffs to board battles, net-front presence and races for loose pucks. The Wild weren’t winning enough of them, because the effort wasn’t there — not consistently from every player.

After that loss in Detroit, an exasperated Evason told reporters, “Same mistakes and same guys not pulling their weight.” He was correct, but after defending his players for 17 games, it was as candid — or maybe just curt — as he had been about the team’s play.

Guerin has said the listlessness of the Detroit game wasn’t necessarily the catalyst for him to change coaches, but Evason’s demeanor might have been. Whatever was happening in the dressing room, Evason wasn’t able to solve it, perhaps because of his own ubiquity.

Too many players were done listening and, as a result, done playing. Guerin, unwilling to give up on a season fast slipping into the point of no return, gave the players a shock to the system. And it has worked. Hynes has made a series of welcome tweaks to get the team playing faster, and the players are working hard.

Since the change, the Wild lead the NHL in goals-against (1.57), and goaltender Filip Gustavsson is 4-1-0 with a 1.21 GAA and .951 save percentage. Forward Matt Boldy, who hadn’t scored a goal since Oct. 14 before the change, has six goals and eight points.

The team’s top offensive players, in fact, are all engaged and scoring points; since Hynes took over, Minnesota is outscoring opponents 24-11. The defense — notably a penalty kill that is 20 for 23 since the coaching change — has rarely been pinned in its end, getting pucks out fast and joining a rush that is taxing opposing defenses. Players are more decisive, their passes smarter and more accurate.

It’s a combination of coaching and effort, but in that equation, the latter is most important — by a long shot. No matter how many smart system changes Hynes employs, the players will have to work hard to turn them into wins.

A Magnificent Seven

Since John Hynes became head coach on Nov. 28, the Wild are 5-2-0, and their top players are producing:
G    G-A-P      P/M     SOG
Matt Boldy            7     6-2–8       +6       17
Mats Zuccarello   7     1-6–7        +3       15
Kirill Kaprizov       7     2-4–6       +6        16
Marco Rossi        7      3-2–5  +3    14
J. Erikkson Ek     7      4-0–4       +6        28
Ryan Hartman     5      0-2–2       +1        6

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