The Wild will resume practice Monday at Tria Rink under strange and unpredictable circumstances.
It will have to win a play-in series to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. It will soon leave for Edmonton, where it will face strict quarantine measures, meaning that the reward for winning a series against Vancouver is another week or two living alone in a hotel in Canada.
It won’t be allowed to add top prospect Kirill Kaprizov to this year’s active roster. It has an interim head coach, an unproven general manager, an aging roster and zero playoff victories since 2015.
This might seem like a strange time for Wild optimism, but optimism might be justified.
The firing of General Manager Paul Fenton a year ago this month created and revealed an organizational crisis. Owner Craig Leipold hired the candidate he knew best, and then, after one year, had to fire Fenton because Fenton couldn’t handle what should have been the easiest part of his job: working with other professionals.
Leipold then did what most sports decision-makers do, and hired someone who appeared to be the opposite of the person he just fired. Bill Guerin is a gregarious and popular former NHL player, whereas Fenton was a scout at heart who proved to be a paranoid and unreasonable boss.
These kinds of machinations — hiring someone you know, then hiring the opposite personality of the person who just failed — are predictable and often disastrous, but Leipold might have lucked out.
For all of Fenton’s managerial problems and mistakes, he traded an overrated center, Mikael Granlund, for a player, Kevin Fiala, who might turn out to be the best in franchise history.
And despite his lack of experience, Guerin has calmed the organization and proved that he’s willing and able to make tough calls like trading the popular Jason Zucker.
By design or luck, Guerin also might wind up with an ideal head coach without having to conduct a search. Dean Evason had the Wild playing well before the NHL shut down. He has an excellent working relationship with Fiala and seems to have the respect of other key young players.
Today would be a good day for Guerin to remove the word “interim” from Evason’s title, allowing Evason to continue his good work with Fiala.
Fiala is the best take-the-puck-and-score player in franchise history. He’s far better in that category than Marian Gaborik, who specialized in breakaway wrist shots, and Zach Parise, who is more workmanlike than gifted.
And now the Wild appears close to signing Kaprizov, the talented young Russian. His situation is confusing, but to summarize: The NHL is allowing the Wild to sign Kaprizov to a two-year contract starting this season but without allowing Kaprizov to play in the remainder of the 2019-20 season. He could travel with the team to Edmonton and practice.
The Wild might soon sign Kaprizov just to secure his services for next season and to bring him into the fold. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than risking Kaprizov’s future as a member of the organization.
The Wild faces a fairly attractive qualifying-round matchup with Vancouver. And by next season, whenever it begins, the Wild might be able to put out its best-ever roster, one featuring the gifted Fiala and Kaprizov, the still-productive Parise and a deep and talented group of defensemen.
The goalie position remains a mystery because it’s difficult to judge Devan Dubnyk based on his performance and absence while he was dealing with his wife’s illness. We can only hope that his family is healthy and he can return to being a quality player.
Somehow, perhaps by pure luck, Leipold not only might survive the worst decision he ever made — but he might profit from it.
Guerin. Evason. Fiala. Kaprizov. A real shot to win a playoff series. A league that has handled the coronavirus crisis as intelligently as any, and more intelligently than most.
Wild employees are allowed to be the rare Americans who get to say, “Things could be a lot worse.”