Finally, after months of mostly inactivity because of their uber-tight cap situation, Wild training camp is upon us.
Players, who have all been back in town for a few weeks and training at TRIA Rink, officially report to camp Wednesday with the first on-ice sessions Thursday.
The Wild have virtually the same team, minus Matt Dumba, Sam Steel and some trade-deadline pickups. But Brock Faber is ready to step up, significant growth is expected from Marco Rossi, trade-deadline pickup Marcus Johansson was re-signed and Pat Maroon was acquired.
Centermen Vinni Lettieri and Jujhar Khaira have also been signed to two-way contracts.
The only thing left to wait for is Calen Addison re-signing, which should happen in the next few days.
On Friday night, during the Wild’s rookie game against the Blues at the Tom Kurvers Prospect Showcase, The Athletic sat down with head coach Dean Evason for an expansive Q&A heading into camp.
Among the topics were season expectations with the cap situation so limited; possible line combinations; what he expects from Rossi, Faber, Maroon and Addison; and the team’s health situation (somebody is hurt).
Evason was so talkative — or maybe the questions were so brilliant and thought-provoking — that we’ve split the Q&A into two parts.
Without further ado, here’s Part 1:
Editor’s note: Conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
First of all, it’s been a long summer. Just how excited are you to get going?
A hundred percent, we’re jacked with seeing everybody come back into town. What’s nice is the familiarity of our group. You walk into the dressing room, we know everybody. Obviously, the only one that really we didn’t know was Patty Maroon. Everybody else is back. Obviously, we’ve got some depth guys that are going to be competing for positions here, but we know them all.
Which brings me to my next question. You’ve got pretty much the same roster as last season minus Dumba. So what gives you optimism that this group can take that next step?
Well, it’s funny because we’ve pulled a lot of numbers from last year — how we did in the league in all different categories — and we’re a really, really good hockey club. And obviously, things didn’t work out how we wanted them to work out. As we all know, there’s some reasons for that. But we do believe that we have a great hockey team. We’re solid in net. We’re solid in the back end. Obviously, Dumba leaves us, but Faber comes in. We’ve already seen him step right into the National Hockey League in a playoff situation and conduct himself extremely well. So we don’t think we’re going to be at a loss in that area. Obviously, Addison needs to have a terrific year, as well … a really good start. And then, we’ve got depth on our forward groups. The issue that we’re going to have, probably, is we’ve got some kids that are pushing now, but we don’t have the flexibility, as I’m sure you have documented. And I’m not going to get into the cap situation and all that because it’s literally none of my business. We, as coaches, coach the team that is presented to ourselves, but if we can stay healthy, we’re real happy with our group.
With Faber, I assume he’ll assume Dumba’s spot and slide next to Jonas Brodin, at least to start camp. We saw him play great in his eight-game look last season, but he was more of a third-pair defenseman. Brodes, we know, gets all the big matchups — against the MacKinnons, McDavids, probably Aleksander Barkov and/or Matthew Tkachuk opening night, Auston Matthews in the second game. Are you confident that Faber’s not going to be overwhelmed by that? And if for some reason he is, would you ever try Jared Spurgeon and Brodes?
A hundred percent on everything that you just said. We are confident, but if there’s a situation where we feel that maybe he is overwhelmed because of his first year — we don’t think that’s going to happen, but if he is — it’s an easy flip for us to him and (Jake Middleton) or even Jonny Merrill or Alex Goligoski and Addy. We’ve got seven guys in those guys that we think can all play in the National Hockey League, obviously. But to your point, yes, we have no issues, especially at home, if we needed a pair to look after a special group like the MacKinnon group, we would feel — and, we’ve talked about it already — very comfortable putting Brodes and Spurge together.
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With Marco Rossi, how does he look? Does he look bigger, faster and all that stuff? Because somebody told me he’s put on 15 pounds of muscle.
Yeah, I just saw him last week and I said exactly that to him. He looks like he’s got some maturity to him. Like it’s not just that he looks bigger. He looks mature, and that comes with, obviously, time. He’s played pro hockey. He’s had some learning situations, and he looks more mature, more confident, and hopefully that translates on the ice.
How do all of us measure his training camp? Because last year he led the league in preseason points, and when the lights came on, he didn’t look like he was ready.
Well, our whole group, right? We were 6-1 in the preseason and then (got off to a tough start). We’re putting an emphasis on playing a few more games through training camp, as far as our camp structure, to hopefully get us into a position where we’re ready. We thought our structure was real good last year, as far as systems and being dialed in, but we thought we didn’t probably play enough hockey, so we’re going to do that. As far as Rossi, yeah, let’s just have it play out. We are very confident. I’ll tell you right now our thought process: He’ll start, which you’ll see at the start of camp, with (Marcus) Foligno and (Freddy) Gaudreau on the right side. We’re going to tinker with some stuff throughout, but we think that would be a very strong line.
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Could you see moving him up — at times, at least, in camp or to start the season? Maybe into a top-six role between Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello or Marcus Johansson and Matt Boldy, especially because Ryan Hartman can obviously play center or wing and Foligno-Hartman-Gaudreau would seem to be a terrific line?
Yes, I’d probably start with (Joel Eriksson Ek) to the top line, so maybe there’s a position where Rossi, Jo-Jo and Boldy play together. Boldy and Marco have had a chemistry together. So yeah, there’s certainly some areas for us to tinker with, not only in camp but in the preseason. We will be watching the chemistry very, very closely.
One’s got to assume sanity will prevail and Calen Addison will sign in the next few days and be on the ice Thursday. We saw him perform really well on the power play last year. But he was scratched 19 of the final 29 regular-season games and all of the playoffs. I know you genuinely like him as a person and player. So what does he have to do at five-on-five to earn your trust?
Compete defensively every single shift. There’s a different bracket of compete. So on the power play, he competes. When he has the puck, he’s intense, right? He makes plays … it’s quick, it’s hard. You have to do that on five-on-five, too. And that’s what we’re trying to stress to him is that five-on-five, defensively, you have to have that same intensity level. You can’t just wait for the power play to be good and intense and gritty, to a certain extent, which he is. That doesn’t just get turned on and turned off. So that’s what we challenged him with last year. At the end of the year, we challenged him to be more committed defensively as far as his compete level. Do the same thing as he’s doing on a power play.
You were top-10 pretty much all year on the power play until Kaprizov got hurt. It wasn’t great in the playoffs. I was talking to Quinn Hughes the other day in Vegas, and he went on and on about (new assistant coach) Jason King. So have (Canucks coach) Rick Tocchet and (assistant coach) Mike Yeo. So will you make changes there? Same with your penalty kill. Will we see any systematic changes?
Yeah, you’ll see some on both. Obviously, we’ve got Jason King coming in to head up our power play. He’s got some real good thoughts. He’s had a real good power play in Vancouver that he worked with. Obviously, he had some real good players like, as you mentioned, Hughes, but he had some personalities he had to deal with, too. Yeah, we’re going to make some changes on our PP. We’re going to absolutely make changes on our PK. Our PK was so good through the regular season with the pressure situation. So we’re going to have a couple of different thought processes. As you and I talked about before, there’s nine goals that were scored in the playoffs. We’ve gone through every one of them. If there were three or four, or even two, that were the same type of goals, we’d go, “Oh shoot, we should have made an adjustment.” But there weren’t. There were situational things with those nine goals. Having said that, we still, as a staff, have to be accountable, too. We should have adjusted or maybe flipped something to give Dallas a different look even though we didn’t feel that there was a pattern with the goals against.
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I was talking to (goalie coach) Freddy Chabot about what your goalie plan will be. He insinuated we could almost see a split to start the year until the second half when the more deserving of Filip Gustavsson and Marc-Andre Fleury get the bulk of the starts. So, in other words, similar to last season. Is that what you’re envisioning?
Yeah. As you know, I/we, as a staff, don’t structure it that Gus is going to play, whatever, 60, and Flower, 22, whatever, or vice versa. Yeah, we’re going to play them as they go. It’s going to be dictated by success.
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Is everybody healthy coming into camp who was hurt in the playoffs?
Ummmmmmm, yeah, pretty much, everybody is. There’s a couple of bumps that we might not see at the start of the training camp, but I don’t want to state them at this time because if it doesn’t transpire then I don’t want to leak that somebody’s been a little bit banged up.
But nobody has a serious injury that’ll keep him out for a while?
No. Everybody, as far as the surgeries or the recoveries, like Eriksson Ek and Kaprizov, are fully good to go. So there might be a couple of guys that maybe don’t make it for the first couple days. We have three days of practice, then our first game. (When camp opens Thursday), you’ll see the guy that I’m speaking of.
Author’s note: I get the impression that one forward who was hurt at the end of 2022-23 has a different injury heading into camp and that’s part of why the Wild signed Khaira to a two-way contract (may have to start as a pro tryout). Khaira is a big body (6-foot-4), a center, isn’t afraid to fight and is a good penalty killer. It’s helpful to also have another $775,000 league-minimum guy for call-ups. At the start, Khaira, Lettieri, Nic Petan, Nick Swaney and Steven Fogarty have much better chances of being recalled than Adam Beckman and Sammy Walker, who make in the high $800s as opposed to $700s.
— The Athletic’s Joe Smith contributed to this report.
(Top photo: Bruce Kluckhohn / NHLI via Getty Images)