Just days ago, what was intriguing about the Wild was its play and the players.
Could the team corral a playoff spot after a miserable start?
Will Kevin Fiala’s second-half surge continue?
Is this the last chapter of captain Mikko Koivu’s career?
But now, those former focal points have taken a back seat.
Like the rest of the sports world, the NHL came to a screeching halt on Thursday after the league paused its season during the coronavirus pandemic. Players have been instructed to self-quarantine, and no timeline has been given for when action could resume.
What isn’t unclear, though, is how there’s a shortage of answers for a surplus of questions during an unprecedented time that has left the entire state of the Wild in flux.
“It is unique, and I’m not even sure it’s fully set in at this point,” player agent Brian Bartlett said.
As jarring as it felt to have hockey come to an abrupt stop with less than a month to go in the regular season, this isn’t the first time the NHL has been affected by an outbreak.
In 1919, the Stanley Cup Final was canceled due to the Spanish flu — one of two instances in NHL history where the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded. The other came in 2005 after a season-long lockout.
While the circumstances are different, the most recent lockout in 2012 could offer up some clues about how the league may resume play if it decides to do so.
After the NHL and NHLPA reached a new collective bargaining agreement on Jan. 6, 2013, an abbreviated, 48-game season began on Jan. 19 — giving teams and players a 13-day buffer to reorganize and prepare for the upcoming schedule.
A similar lead-up could happen after this current hiatus. It might be shorter, since teams have already logged the bulk of their seasons and players have been encouraged by the NHL to stay in shape during this downtime.
Still, a memo sent out to players Friday made it clear the league would allot enough time for players to skate and get ready for games before actually playing.
“You probably need a week to get it back going again,” said Bartlett, whose clientele includes the Wild’s Jordan Greenway.
If the NHL does pick back up, how the rest of the season shakes out is up in the air.
Depending on how long this stoppage lasts, the league could try to salvage all remaining games, opt for a condensed regular season or go straight to playoffs. Perhaps even a new playoff format is considered, maybe one that trims down the usual best-of-seven series if it looks like the season may spill deeper into the summer.
Typically, the Stanley Cup is handed out in mid-June. During the 2013, season, it was lifted June 24. A Game 7, if needed, was scheduled for June 28.
Building availability is a major factor, and clearly the shorter this break lasts the better the outlook is for the Wild because as additional postponed games are wiped off the calendar, the more likely it seems the NHL will have to scrap some action and potentially focus on just saving the playoffs. And as it stands now, the Wild is one point out of a spot at 35-27-7 with 77 points.
Should the Wild get to compete, its urgency will probably eclipse the make-or-break vibe that had hovered over the team in recent weeks.
The group may not have much time to nab a playoff berth, making the margin for error slim. It’s possible, though, the lull enables players to return rested and rejuvenated and puts the Wild at full strength. At the time of the pause, defenseman Carson Soucy was still sidelined with an upper-body injury.
There’s also a chance the Wild’s season ended Thursday — because of a playoffs-only schedule or due to the entire league remaining shuttered. That scenario would unleash a wave of what-ifs.
Fiala’s remarkable rise to become the Wild’s leading scorer at 54 points after a 14-goal, 12-assist tear over his last 18 games would be cut short, ending the best season of his career with 13 (or more) games to go.
Koivu hasn’t announced whether this season is his last; he’s in the final months of his contract and just turned 37. Either way, he’s lost time near the end of his NHL journey.
And the potential of this version of the Wild will remain a mystery, although it looked like it could have closed the gap on the playoffs after winning eight of its past 11 games — a run sparked by an outpouring of offense and steady goaltending. But if the team doesn’t continue playing because it missed out on the playoffs, not banking one or two more points would be an agonizing start to the offseason after the team was so recently energized.
“It’s going to be very fun,” Fiala said only last Wednesday.
While the present is cloudy, so is the future if that’s what’s next for the Wild.
Not advancing to the postseason would shift attention to the draft, but scouting has been affected since the junior ranks, college hockey and other development leagues have also stopping playing. One NHL scout said most teams have preliminary lists but would rely on video of players and analytical departments to tweak them.
This restock and how the Wild continues to evolve under General Manager Bill Guerin would take center stage, especially if prized prospect Kirill Kaprizov finally joins the team from Russia.
All that is certain for now, though, is the waiting — a holding pattern that has a definite start but no end in sight.