The NHL regular season is officially over, but the Wild is still alive.
Despite sitting shy of a playoff spot when the league was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, the Wild will compete for the Stanley Cup if the season resumes later this summer.
The league would play games at two hub sites, and the Twin Cities is among 10 candidates.
“I’m so glad we’re in the mix and we have an opportunity,” Wild General Manager Bill Guerin said. “It’s great.”
After months of limbo while the league has been on hiatus, the Wild gained clarity on its fate Tuesday when the NHL announced the team is included in its “return to play plan” — the most significant indication the league is committed to putting a bow on a season that came to a standstill March 12.
Earlier this week, the NHL detailed its approach for potentially reopening team facilities to players in early June; and last Friday the executive board of the NHL Players’ Association signed off on a 24-team format that the NHL formally unveiled in a televised announcement by Commissioner Gary Bettman.
The Wild, if play resumes, would open the NHL postseason tournament with a best-of-five play-in series against Vancouver.
“We hope that this is a step back toward normalcy,” Bettman said.
When given clearance by medical and government officials, the NHL will commence with the top 12 teams from each conference based on points percentage at the time play stopped, when roughly 85% of the regular season had been completed.
The top four teams from each conference will participate in a round robin to determine first-round seeding, and the remaining eight teams will square off against each other in a best-of-five series to advance to the playoffs. Whether matchups for the first and second rounds are determined by seeding or a bracket and the length of each series has yet to be determined.
The conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be a traditional, best-of-seven series.
“I’m excited about it,” Guerin said. “It’ll be different. It’ll be new, and the Minnesota Wild are involved in it. There’s really not much to be upset about or negative about.”
On an impressive 15-7-1 run that helped lift the team back into contention after a rocky start to the season, the Wild was only one point back of a wild-card berth when the league suspended play; it had 77 points from a 35-27-7 record through 69 games.
Wild vs. Canucks
Under the revised seeding, the Wild is 10th in the Western Conference and would face No. 7 Vancouver. The Wild won the season series 2-1, with the last game a 4-3 shootout win in Vancouver on Feb. 19 that was interim coach Dean Evason’s first victory.
“They’re a good team,” Guerin said of the Canucks, who went 36-27-6. “They’re young. They’re talented. They’re fast. They’re exciting to watch. Hey, look, I’m excited for it.”
Each conference will be assigned a hub site, and Minneapolis/St. Paul is in consideration to be named one. So are Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver.
“It’d be great,” Guerin said of the Twin Cities. “It’s the biggest, best hockey market in the country.”
Teams will be limited to 50 personnel in each hub city, and only a small number of support staff will be allowed to enter the event areas. Sites will likely be determined in three to four weeks, Bettman said, and their selection will be dependent on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and government regulations.
Rigorous and regular testing is key to the plan, Bettman said, and he stressed the importance of the health and safety of players, coaches and essential staff.
The league hopes all 24 teams will have the ability to test their players at least twice a week when team facilities open for training, and testing would increase when clubs progress to a training camp.
By the time games potentially return, players will be tested every evening and results will be available the next morning before they leave their hotel room.
Teams will initially bear the cost of testing, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said, but the league will foot the bill once the season returns. The cost is projected to be millions of dollars, and “one single positive test, depending on the circumstance, should not necessarily shut the whole operation down,” Daly said.
While specific timing for when the season could start back up is unclear, the end of July or August seems to be the earliest. That timeline would push the 2020-21 season’s start to December or even January; the league plans to play that season in full and, hopefully, with fans in attendance.
After reopening team facilities for voluntary, small-group workouts capped at six players per session, the league is scheduled to transition to a formal training camp of at least a few weeks that will begin no earlier than the first half of July.
Gathering the group
Guerin said he didn’t know how many Wild players planned to participate in the voluntary workouts, and he also hadn’t heard of any players flying back to Minnesota. About half the roster had been staying outside the state, including in Canada and Europe.
“I would assume everybody wants to get back in there and start working out,” Guerin said. “… [But] we can’t force guys to do it, so it’s going to be on their own time.”
Daly said players have been deemed essential personnel by the government, so they won’t have an issue returning to the U.S.
But before teams would reconvene for camp, the NHL will start the draft lottery on June 26 for the seven teams not returning to play and eight placeholders representing the teams that are eliminated in the qualifying round.
There will be a draw for each of the first three picks. If any of these draws are won by a team playing in the qualifying round, that pick will be decided in the second phase of the draft lottery between the qualifying round and the first round of the playoffs. Only the eight teams that didn’t advance past the qualifying round will be included in this selection process.
The remaining picks will be determined by the inverse order of teams’ points percentages at the time of the season’s pause.
Into the unknown
All these developments signaled progress in behind-the-scenes talks that have featured a Return to Play Committee that includes some of the NHL’s most prominent players, but obstacles still exist.
Aside from ironing out details in the playoff format and finalizing the logistics of the hub cities — a possibly thorny debate since some NHLers, like Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, have objected to being isolated from their families — the threat of the pandemic is still real and could keep the league dark.
Without knowing, though, what’s ahead, the league is focusing on what it can control and that’s figuring out how it can get back on the ice when it gets the green light.
“There are always going to be hurdles with something like this,” Guerin said. “We really never know what’s going to change tomorrow, but I think today was a great step. It gives us hope that this could actually happen.
“There’s a ton of work still left to be done. There are a lot of questions that are still going to have to be answered. But, all in all, a positive day and just excited to get some news like this.”