The Wild hasn’t played a game in almost four months, but the break in action has been much longer for Carson Soucy.
Injured in February, the rookie defenseman missed the team’s last nine games and was on the brink of returning to the ice before the coronavirus pandemic paused the season.
“I was cleared to skate the day after we all got shut down,” Soucy recalled. “So I was just gearing up to get back on the ice and then this whole thing happens and I’m not allowed to skate for another three months.”
Now, not only has Soucy healed up but he’s also finally skating again — working out at Tria Rink in St. Paul ahead of a qualifying matchup between the Wild and Canucks if the NHL and players agree to resume the season this summer.
“Just to be skating back in Minnesota with a couple of guys, it made it feel more real,” Soucy said Tuesday during a video conference call. “It made it feel like playoffs are coming and we’re going to start getting ready here. So, it was definitely exciting.”
Soucy was among the first wave of players to voluntarily skate at Tria Rink after the Wild opened its practice rink last month as part of the second phase of the NHL’s return-to-play plan.
Training camp, set to begin July 10, and a 24-team tournament for the Stanley Cup are the third and fourth phases, respectively, but the protocols for each still haven’t been announced. Both the NHL and NHL Players’ Association have to sign off on them.
Six players, including Soucy, goalie Devan Dubnyk and forward Ryan Hartman, trained last week at Tria Rink, but Soucy anticipates more players to join this week since quite a few are getting tested for COVID-19 — a precursor to participation.
As of Monday, 15 players out of more than 250 who reported for workouts at team facilities tested positive; the league is also aware of another 11 who have tested positive since June 8.
“You definitely don’t plan to get it,” Soucy said. “I’m still hoping we steer clear of it with our team. You’ve seen it go through other teams. I’m definitely a little nervous about getting it. We want to take all the precaution we can, and we are doing a great job at the rink testing almost every day and stuff. The hope is it doesn’t go through our team and none of us get it around here.”
Before he was sidelined, Soucy was in the midst of a terrific season as one of the most reliable players on the Wild’s blue line.
A long shot to even make the team out of training camp, Soucy impressed enough to land a spot and then parlayed the opportunity into a regular role. Through 55 games, the 25-year-old chipped in seven goals and seven assists and was a plus-16.
“That extra year down in Iowa helped with confidence and helped with more playing time,” said Soucy, who spent last season in the minors after making his NHL debut during the 2017-18 season. “Just the shot the coaches gave me at the start of the season, they let me play the way I needed to play to gain confidence and they put their trust in me early.”
A sudden halt
His upper-body injury came Feb. 21 in front of family and friends in Edmonton. A few weeks after the season stopped, Soucy was fully cleared to return to Minnesota to prepare for the restart.
“I figured that [would] kind of be the best access for me, to have access to trainers and stuff to get me back ready for training camp coming up,” said Soucy, who was drafted in the fifth round in 2013 but played four seasons at Minnesota Duluth. “… When you’re off skates for a while, it kind of feels a little different. Your hands feel a little shaky. So, I just want to get as many reps as I can before training camp and feel comfortable going into it.”
What’s next for Soucy, though, after a potential conclusion to the season is unclear.
Despite his rookie status, Soucy could become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason if his NHL service time is less than 80 games after the season ends. He’s at 62 games.
Figuring out how to count the remaining games this season was an issue Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the league would have to resolve. During the lockout-shortened season in 2013, the NHL prorated games, but it’s unclear if the league would take a similar approach with this season. If Soucy does eclipse 80 games, he’ll become a restricted free agent.
“I love it here in Minnesota,” Soucy said. “Obviously, this is where I want to play. So, I could definitely see myself coming back here.”
Contracts would have expired Wednesday under normal circumstances, since the NHL calendar usually resets on July 1 when free agency begins. A revised timeline is one of many crucial details that need to be finalized before a return, one that Soucy expects to feel urgent with the Wild having to prevail in a best-of-five to reach the traditional playoff format.
“It’s going to be really intense playoff hockey,” he said. “That’s all you can hope for, that it’s intense, and hopefully we’re ready to bring our best at that time.”