Evason extension makes sense for Wild, but biggest tests await

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With the 2022 Winter Classic a mere (ice-cold) stone throw away, the Wild decided to sign head coach Dean Evason to a contract extension. The Wild did the same with Evason’s coaching staff, and even celebrated it with the above graphic.

(Speaking of graphic, Evason apparently informed the media of his extension in a profane way.)

At first blush, it seems sensible enough for the Wild to keep Evason around as head coach. Just look at where the Wild rank in the Central Division.

How has he actually performed, though? Where could the Wild improve, and how much of their current success is sustainable?

Let’s dive in with the spirit of Creed Bratton blogging into the void.

Success, though in a strange, staggered sample size

So far, as Wild head coach, Dean Evason amassed an impressive 62-29-7 record, which translates to a strong .668 points percentage.

Focus on the past two seasons (throwing out the 12 games he coached replacing Bruce Boudreau in 2019-20), and it’s clear that the Wild stack up better than just about anyone expected when Evason took over. They rank ninth in points (115) and points percentage (.669) during the past two seasons.

Amid quite a few surprises, the biggest upset of all is that the Wild have been scoring more goals under Evason. With 3.36 goals per game over their past 86 contests, the Wild rank fifth in the NHL.

Impressive stuff.

[Lately, the Wild have been climbing PHT’s Power Rankings]

That said, I’d argue that we still only know so much about Evason as Wild head coach.

Truly, if you want a capsule of how much COVID has disrupted our ability to completely view the NHL, merely look at Evason’s first “three” seasons. After that 12 games as interim head coach, Evason’s first “full” season was truncated to 56 regular-season contests. At 30 games played now, it remains to be seen if the Wild reach 82 games in 2021-22.

Ultimately, Evason’s coached a mere 98 regular-season games and 11 playoff contests. While Minnesota hasn’t won a series under his watch, they’ve still exceeded expectations, but we really only have a bit more than a season of data.

So, there’s a “to be continued” air to some of this. But it’s better to succeed — maybe overachieve, maybe soak up some good luck — than to fall apart.

Can Wild keep scoring like this under Dean Evason?

Logically speaking, the Wild will probably cool off a bit under Dean Evason. Eventually.

After all, during the past two seasons, the Wild haven’t just been the hottest-shooting team in the NHL at even strength. They’ve been so by a pretty healthy margin.

Combine the past two seasons (86 games played), and the Wild’s even-strength shooting percentage is at 11.39-percent. No other team is even at 11%, with the Capitals coming in second at 10.82.

Could some of that be by design? Perhaps. Let’s not forget that the Capitals, for example, have outperformed shooting expectations quite often with Alex Oveckhin in the fold. Maybe Evason’s “attention to details” may help the Wild to keep this up?

That may require widening their range of high-danger scoring chances. Check out this Hockey Viz breakdown for 2021-22:

Evason extension makes sense for Wild, but biggest tests await Hockey Viz MIN
I’ve genuinely not seen another 2021-22 shot chart like this (via Hockey Viz)

Feasting on the innermost portion of the inner slot is a good thing. Still, that pattern doesn’t necessarily translate into the sort of red-hot scoring we’ve seen from the Wild.

Patterns they want to maintain, ones they want to break

That said, not every underlying metric indicates that the Wild aren’t thriving under Evason.

  • When it comes to winning the high-danger chance battles at even-strength, the Wild have been strong under Evason. During the past two seasons, they rank seventh in high-danger chances for at even strength (53.61%), and 12th in expected goals percentage (51.57%). Generally, they’ve been able to win the quality battle, even if they’re mixed at gaining quantity.

Overall, the Wild look good (if not great) at even-strength under Evason. To reach a higher level (and maybe counteract a possible cooling of their shooting luck), the Wild need to fix their power play, though.

You can’t just blame bad luck. During the past two seasons, they’ve been a bottom-10 power play in expected goals for and high-danger chances.

The soul-searching question is: how much of those failures hinge on personnel, and how much can Evason change?

The answers may dovetail into another area where the Wild might want to improve: goaltending.

The right time for Wild to buy at a trade deadline?

Could Evason get more out of Wild goaltending and its power play if Bill Guerin made some 2022 NHL Trade Deadline additions?

As dynamic as Kirill Kaprizov is, another power play weapon might just unlock that unit. (Giving prospects like Matt Boldy and Marco Rossi some looks could help, too.)

Again, the same logic may apply in net. Cam Talbot‘s been reasonably steady, but maybe the Wild would raise their ceiling by going after, say, Marc-Andre Fleury or some other potential net upgrade?

Ultimately, it’s pretty easy to see why the Wild kept Dean Evason around. Even so, his biggest tests lie ahead.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

“The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.