Smith: Wild GM Bill Guerin played his coach card. Now the scrutiny is on him

When Bill Guerin finalized the firing of coach Dean Evason on Monday, he started calling his team’s leaders to let them know.

The Minnesota Wild’s team president and general manager connected with captain Jared Spurgeon, who, like the rest of the group, felt bad for letting his coach down.

“I told him, ‘Look, we have to own this,’” Guerin said. “Players have to be better. I have to be better. The coaches have to be better. We all have to be better.”

Goodbye, Dean. Step up, Bill. You’re next in line for the hot seat.

In replacing Evason with John Hynes, Guerin played one of his final cards. Now, the scrutiny falls on his shoulders. This is his team. This is his coach, the one he’s had a relationship with for a decade. It was Guerin’s decision to buy out Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, creating the club’s current $14.7 million in dead cap hit — a self-inflicted limitation the Wild GM swears they don’t talk about, even if he admitted Evason coached last season with one hand tied behind his back. It was Guerin’s call to re-sign Marcus Foligno, Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman in September instead of waiting on the pending unrestricted free agents to see how this season played out.

He doesn’t regret those moves, he said.

“I’m sure there’s people out there that disagree with me or think I’m crazy,” Guerin said. “I believe in these players. I don’t regret it at all. I think they’re going to turn their seasons around.”

This was the main reason behind the Wild letting Evason go 19 games into the season. Guerin still believes this group can make the playoffs in a weak Western Conference. Both Guerin and owner Craig Leipold can’t stomach a rebuild, and they’re determined to win despite the dead cap hits.

So as the Wild lost seven in a row and 13 of 16, Guerin felt something had to change. He gave Evason a public vote of confidence in an interview with The Athletic on Nov. 19, saying you can “only lead a horse to water,” then fired him a week later.

What changed?

“Coaches can’t go out and execute for the players and play, but I just didn’t feel like it was going to come back,” Guerin said. “I think it had just gotten to that point where almost no matter what they did, the guys were having a hard time executing and generating offense. Something had to change. ‘We can’t trade 23 players’ is the old saying.”

Guerin thought the team played better in its two losses in Sweden, one in a shootout to Ottawa and another overtime loss to the Maple Leafs. He had laid into the team in what players dubbed a “kick-in-the-ass” meeting before they left for Stockholm.

They haven’t won since.

With the lack of cap space and many players on no-move clauses, there weren’t many ways for Guerin to shake things up except for letting go of Evason and assistant Bob Woods, who ran the league-worst penalty kill.

So what now? When Guerin says “it” has been missing, what’s the “it” and how do they find it?

“I guess when I say ‘it,’ it’s a little bit of everything,” Guerin said. “It’s the confidence. It’s the swagger. It’s the ability to make plays. The feeling that when you step out on the ice you’re going to accomplish something. And it just didn’t seem like that was coming back, because it kept getting (worse).

“There’s kind of that ‘it’ factor. You feel that and you know it. I think with the coaching change, the slate is clean for guys. It’s a new day, it’s a new voice. They’re going to get a new message.”

“This is a wakeup call for all of us,” said rookie Brock Faber.

Hynes, who has previously been head coach for the New Jersey Devils and the Nashville Predators, has experience joining a team during a season and providing a spark. He mentioned not being able to “reinvent the wheel” or make wholesale changes. The main focus will be for the team to regain its identity and to build up the confidence of its players, specifically the best ones, Kirill Kaprizov and Matt Boldy. Guerin said Boldy’s struggles are “weighing on him like a ton of bricks.”

Guerin gave Boldy a seven-year, $49 million deal last season, calling him a franchise “cornerstone.” He made Kaprizov the centerpiece and knows he’ll likely have to show the Russian star the Wild are playoff contenders to persuade him to re-sign long-term.

The Boldy and Kaprizov contracts aren’t the problem. Guerin has made other questionable and seemingly gut-based decisions that loom large.

He signed Jon Merrill to a three-year, $3.6 million extension in January 2021 when there was no rush. The veteran defenseman has since been a scratch off and on. When you’re pinching pennies in a cap crunch, even $1.2 million is huge. The Wild had only enough cap space after Hartman was suspended this week to call up Vinni Lettieri.

Guerin signed Alex Goligoski to a two-year, $4 million extension before the end of the 2022 season, handing him a full no-move clause, while he was being healthy scratched. That hampered Guerin’s flexibility at last year’s deadline when he wanted to upgrade their blue line, as well as this past summer.

In five years as GM, Guerin has yet to do a full-fledged coaching search, choosing to take the interim tag off Evason and now replacing him mid-season with Hynes.

As for re-signing Foligno, Hartman and especially Zuccarello, the issue was the when, not the who. Guerin could have let this season play out before starting negotiations with the three players, who were set to be UFAs next offseason. Two of them were coming off down seasons. Guerin was essentially negotiating against himself.

Foligno, 32, who signed a four-year, $16 million deal, has two goals as the season hits the quarter mark. Hartman, 29, who signed a three-year, $12 million deal, just got suspended for two games for a slew-foot, putting his team in a bind, amid a run of goalless games.

If not re-signed, those players also could have potentially netted strong assets in March if the Wild were sellers. They’re not going anywhere now.

“When you’re doing contracts like that and you offer things like no-moves, no-trades, partial no-moves, it’s a negotiation,” Guerin said. “There’s back and forth. There’s certain things that are important to players. I feel we have those players on good deals, good numbers. Sometimes the term is a little long for some people’s liking. Not mine. I’m comfortable with them.”

He’d better be. This is the group he’s going with. And a team with most of these players delivered back-to-back 100-point seasons — even with dead cap hits — so there’s some reason to believe. The Wild have flaws, no doubt, but they’re better than their current standing, 30th in the NHL in points percentage, ahead of only the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks.

You can make an argument that letting this season play out as it was going, even if it led to a lottery pick — rare in these parts — would have been the more prudent approach. Adding a Macklin Celebrini and Cole Eiserman could be franchise-changing. It wouldn’t be a tear-down, full rebuild. More of a retool. What if a Hynes hire only bumps the Wild up to the playoff bubble, giving them another No. 15 to 20 pick?

One of the most important attributes of a GM is having a clear, realistic understanding of what your team is. Not what you hope they can be. Not what you convince yourself they can be. As a guy who has won multiple Stanley Cups as a player and executive, Guerin knows what a winner should look like.

“I understand what people think,” Guerin said. “OK, we can get draft picks. But we’re also not rebuilding. We’re not. Never have I said we’re rebuilding. If we did that and got rid of players (like Foligno, Hartman, Zuccarello), then you have to replenish your team. You’re taking a chance, bringing in people you don’t like as much. I like these guys.”

In other words, Guerin is still betting a lot on a core that has zero playoff series victories since 2015. This rabid hockey market, this “State of Hockey,” has been hungry for a winner, with the team’s only trip beyond the second round going back 20 years. It’s why Guerin’s statement last spring about it not being a “failure” to lose in the first round rang so hollow.

“It was a difficult day yesterday on one end,” Guerin said of firing Evason. “And then on the other end, we turn the page and begin a new chapter.”

A new chapter, for sure. But general managers don’t get many of these news conferences before they’re on the other side of them.

(Top photo of Bill Guerin and Dean Evason during: Nick Wosika / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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