This isn’t the first time Bill Guerin’s hockey career has been put on ice.
He experienced two lockouts as an NHL player, missing out on roughly a season and a half of games, and was a development coach when the beginning of the 2012-13 campaign was wiped out.
But in those cases, players didn’t have to be holed up at home. They could work out in gyms and skate together, get out in the community.
Now, life is different.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” the Wild general manager said. “The whole world’s on hold. It’s not just Minnesota. It’s not just the United States. It’s the whole world, and that’s what’s really bizarre about the whole thing. We’ve got to do what’s right. I think there’s just so many things at stake. The biggest thing is people’s health.
“… All the sports leagues are doing the right thing. This is bigger than a hockey game or a basketball game. This is serious.”
NHL action has been paused for almost a week, with the league suspending its season Thursday in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Players have been asked to self-quarantine, and the hope is the NHL might be able to reconvene with training camps at the end of April before potentially playing again.
Other than that, though, questions outnumber answers, and it’s amid this newfound uncertainty that Guerin continues to navigate his first season as general manager of the Wild.
“We’d just love to be back doing what we do,” Guerin said. “But it’s just not the right time yet.”
Although the competition has ceased, with a fourth Wild game voided Tuesday night, Guerin isn’t completely idle.
Throughout the day, he checks in with his hockey operations staff and, as usual during the season, the group will forecast and plan for the offseason and teams can still sign players. But even if the Wild did finally lock up prized prospect Kirill Kaprizov, he wouldn’t be eligible until next season.
Winger Kevin Fiala, the team’s leading scorer after a second-half tear, can sign an extension this summer, but Guerin said the club hasn’t “gone down that path yet.” Before this season, Fiala signed a two-year, $6 million contract.
Right now, the Wild is exploring college free agents even though it wants to be mindful of its spending since the look of next season’s salary cap is up in the air.
“We’re not just going to stockpile players,” Guerin said. “If we can give him a legitimate opportunity and help him be an NHL player and have him help us, then we’ll do it. And we are involved in a few guys, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Getting a read on up-and-comers, however, has been affected because college hockey, the Canadian junior ranks and other development leagues have also stopped playing.
While Guerin mentioned the Wild has a video library it can comb, watching in person — and multiple times — is critical to making decisions. That’s a problem not exclusive to the Wild, as every other team in the NHL is in the same predicament.
The draft, scheduled for June 26 and 27 in Montreal, could be impeded, and Guerin is sure it will happen. So far, the NHL hasn’t said how the draft might change. It’s unclear what would happen to the first-round pick the Wild received in the Jason Zucker trade with Pittsburgh since it was conditional on the Penguins making the playoffs; if they didn’t advance, they could defer the pick until next season.
What the NHL also hasn’t divulged, Guerin said, is potential schedule scenarios should the league restart.
If that does happen, Guerin will have expectations for the Wild.
“You play to win,” he said. “That mandate will never change.”
Hard to stop
Before the season went dark, the Wild was on the upswing — winning eight of its previous 11 games to land in contention for one of the Western Conference’s two wild-card berths. The team sat in the first spot after its most recent game but fell to a point out of the playoffs during a layoff before the NHL halted play.
“I thought it was going really well,” Guerin said. “From the coaching staff to the players to the training staff, everybody was chipping in and doing their part and had really come together. The players just carried out the game plan, and their battle level and compete level were extremely high. They deserve a ton of credit for putting themselves in the position they are now being that we had a terrible start and were right in the mix.
“I think and I hope that they realize their potential and that we are a good team.”
That 8-3 run came with interim coach Dean Evason at the helm after he replaced Bruce Boudreau, who was fired Feb. 14.
Evason, who is 8-4 overall, and Guerin had a “transparent conversation,” and Evason’s status will remain unchanged for the time being. Guerin is not interviewing potential candidates right now — “You can’t ask people to travel,” he said — and he wants to see how the season resolves before making any moves.
“He’s been great,” Guerin said of Evason. “He really has. He’s a really good communicator, and he’s fair and the clarity that guys have in their role and their game plan is really, really good. He gets it. He’s been around this game for a long time, and he played a long time, so he can talk to guys on their level as a player because he gets it and he’s very organized. Has a lot of strong attributes, that’s for sure.”
The holding pattern has jolted the Wild out of its usual rhythm and into uncharted territory, and Guerin has thought of players like captain Mikko Koivu who have had the latter stages of their careers interrupted.
Still, Guerin is hopeful the 37-year-old Koivu and others will get to keep playing this season as long as no one’s safety is compromised.
“This is such a unique time that we just have to take a step back and realize what’s important, and eventually we’ll get back on the ice,” Guerin said. “[We] just don’t know when.”