The Dean Evason Appreciation Post

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

23.

That is the number of players who logged their first career NHL game after playing under Dean Evason during his six-seasons as head coach of the Milwaukee Admirals.

Those players, by order of NHL debut, were: Victor Bartley (3/8/13), Taylor Beck (3/19/13), Austin Watson (4/7/13), Daniel Bång (4/9/13), Kevin Henderson (4/19/13), Joonas Rask (4/25/13), Magnus Hellberg (10/26/13), Marek Mazanec (11/8/13), Colton Sissons (1/28/14), Simon Moser (2/1/14), Calle Järnkrok (3/21/14), Mark Van Guilder (3/30/14), Miikka Salomäki (1/8/15), Anthony Bitetto (1/17/15), Viktor Arvidsson (3/21/15), Kevin Fiala (3/24/15), Juuse Saros (11/28/15), Pontus Åberg (5/3/16), Frédérick Gaudreau (10/22/16), Mike Liambas (12/3/16), Vladislav Kamenev (1/6/17), Alex Carrier (1/17/17), and Trevor Murphy (3/24/18).

The list is simply many and could perhaps even still grow in time.

And that doesn’t begin to cover the handful of names who worked with Evason and his coaching staff in Milwaukee and navigated into a secure place in the NHL. The likes of Mattias Ekholm and Filip Forsberg come to mind as players who stamped out a season under Evason before settling into and remaining in Nashville.

Evason’s time as head coach of the Milwaukee Admirals spanned six-seasons. In that time he became the longest tenured and winningest in Admirals’ AHL history. He had an overall record of 242-161-29-24 and one of the true highlight seasons came in 2015-16 when the Admirals won the Central Division and nearly topped the Ontario Reign for best record in the Western Conference.

Yet, for those accomplishments, the focus was all about the players and preparing them for playing professional hockey at the highest level. You can look back on the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals as a small nod to the impacts Evason’s teachings in Milwaukee had for Nashville. The players arrived to the Stanley Cup Playoffs ready for any situation they could be thrown into. They were tested. And they helped advance the Predators deep into the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Finals appearance.

So, what made Evason and Milwaukee work so well together?

I find the answer to that question to be simple. It was the man himself.

In all of my interactions with Evason I knew I was always getting someone honest, someone who was accountable for himself and his team, who understood that there was a larger picture at work, and that deeply loved the game of hockey as though he was still a young player himself.

The term “player’s coach” can be thrown around, for sure, but I’d sum it differently. Evason knew when and how to motivate the team or an individual, when to keep things light and loose, and when to get everyone focused. I always found his keen ability for handing the locker room over to the players, such as captain turned assistant coach under Evason –Scott Ford– or more recently captain Trevor Smith, to often be an incredible sign for how well he understood the pulse of his team. He trusted his players to work hard and for the leaders to lead and rarely did the players fail his trust.

It’s that which is why the news of Evason becoming an assistant coach of the Minnesota Wild feels bittersweet.

The Milwaukee Admirals are coming off of a season in which they failed to reach the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs. It is the second time in four seasons that the Admirals failed to reach the playoffs and only the third time in the team’s seventeen-year run in the AHL.

What comes immediately to mind is the last time the Admirals didn’t make the playoffs, 2014-15. It was turbulent. There was no real consistency and it felt like a big process as many newer and younger names arrived to the organization. That, following 2017-18, sounds familiar. What followed with the 2015-16 season was a complete change. The Admirals went from finishing last in the Central Division to winning it with a record of 48-23-3-2 (101 points, 0.664 points percentage). Evason was able to take those that experienced a rough roller-coaster season and use it positively while integrating pieces that boosted the team and changed the locker room culture for the better.

It would have been fascinating to see Evason have the chance in 2018-19 to attempt another division winning level turn-around. It would have felt so rewarding to see his and his coaching staff’s hard work get beyond the first round of a playoff series. But, with the NHL and familiar faces in Paul Fenton and Bruce Boudreau calling from Minnesota, it’s time.

I’m not sure who is to replace Evason ahead of the 2018-19 season. Could it be his protégé Ford? Could it be the man who was an assistant coach since the 2011-12 season here in Milwaukee by the name of Stan Drulia? Could it even be someone we’ve never even heard of? At this stage we simply do not know. We don’t. What I do know is if they’re anything close to the model of consistency as Evason established Milwaukee and Nashville should be proud.

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