ANAHEIM, Calif. – Cam Talbot was excited to get reacquainted with the hefty workload that comes with being a starting goalie in the NHL, a title he'd lost, then reclaimed once the Wild tabbed him to take over its crease.
But since debuting with his new team, Talbot hasn't strung together more than three games.
After an early-season injury, he was sidelined a second time by a COVID-19 outbreak that affected more than half the Wild roster.
And although he's been cleared to rejoin the team, the 33-year-old netminder is still in a holding pattern — needing to rediscover game shape before suiting up for the Wild.
"It's extremely frustrating to not get any traction so far," Talbot said. "Hopefully this is the last instance I have to deal with this this year."
Following a bounce-back season with Calgary that helped him secure a three-year, $11 million contract with the Wild, Talbot seemed to pick up where he left off – winning his first two starts and then playing superbly in the third (a 1-0 loss in Anaheim on Jan. 18).
Then the journey became bumpy.
In the Wild's home opener, Talbot left the game with a lower-body injury and missed the next four games.
When he returned, he backstopped the Wild to a gutsy overtime win at home against the Avalanche and was also solid in the rematch in Colorado even though the Wild fell short 2-1.
A day later, the team was shut down by the NHL after five more players entered the NHL's COVID protocols. While the Wild was on hiatus, Talbot went on the COVID list.
He was asymptomatic but still had to lie low and not spike his heart rate.
"I isolated myself in a hotel away from my family for a week or so," Talbot said. "Just tried to keep busy, watched shows, tried to stay as sane as possible. Just staring at those four walls for a week was the hardest part for me."
Last Thursday, Talbot and a handful of teammates were released from the protocols and traveled to Anaheim to meet up with the Wild before getting on the ice with the group for a practice on Friday.
Had he been coming off an injury, Talbot probably would have pushed to get back into the lineup Saturday against the Ducks. But because he was idle for so long, Talbot isn't circling a target date for his first game back.
"I don't want to rush anything," he said. "I want to make sure when I come back, I'm 100 percent and ready to help the team win. Until that happens, I'm not going to put a timeline on it."
What he feels he must regain is his conditioning, ice awareness and tracking, with the latter his priority.
"You'd be surprised how quickly you lose your tracking as a goaltender not being on the ice for over two weeks," said Talbot, who started a league-high 73 games in 2016-17 during his first NHL starting gig with Edmonton before the Oilers eventually cut ties. "Just timing and stuff like that coming back is a big thing for me."
As much as this stop-and-go pace has been challenging for Talbot, the Wild hasn't picked up on that from his demeanor.
"He's so calm. He's so professional. He's such a leader," coach Dean Evason said. "You wouldn't know that there's anything negative that happened to him."
That composure has carried over onto the ice when Talbot has been in action, with his .920 save percentage and 2.40 goals-against average from a 3-2 run better than the league averages.
Once he feels he's back to full strength, Talbot will get a chance to restart his season for good and add to those results.
"It's a little bit of adversity," Talbot said. "You just have to battle through it. So, if nothing else, I'm just going to continue to work hard, push through, work my butt off on the ice and in the gym and try to be back as quick as possible. It's the best I can do right now."
Sarah McLellan covers the Wild and the NHL for the Star Tribune. email@example.com