After a bright start to the 2021-22 NHL season, going 5-2-0, the Minnesota Wild have just gotten some bad news. It was announced on Thursday that left-winger Mats Zuccarello and center Rem Pitlick had entered COVID-19 protocol. There wasn’t any news as to whether or not they had contracted the virus; however, that changed on Friday when The Athletic‘s Michael Russo confirmed the worst-case scenario.
Russo added that there’s no update as to whether or not Zuccarello and Pitlick are symptomatic or not. If either of them is showing symptoms, they’ll have to remain isolated for at least 10 days, according to COVID protocol for the 2021-22 NHL season. If they’re asymptomatic, they must produce two negative tests in back-to-back days and be cleared by medical personnel to return to hockey activities.
Consequences for the Wild
It’s never easy losing a player for any period of time, let alone two at once. In this case, losing Zuccarello is obviously the bigger blow for the Wild. Of his three seasons in Minnesota, the 2021-22 NHL season has been shaping up to be his best. Zuccarello’s three goals are tied for the team lead while his seven points put him ahead of all the other Wild players thus far. The fact that he’ll be out of Minnesota’s lineup will no doubt be felt for the foreseeable future, whether that’s just for a couple of games or 10 days if he is symptomatic.
Meanwhile, Pitlick has only played one game for the Wild this season, suiting up against the Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 26. While he only played a little more than nine minutes, he did assist Mathew Dumba on the game-winning goal. A local kid, the hope was that the 24-year-old could contribute in a bottom-six role throughout the season. Instead, the Wild and their fans will have to wait a little longer to see if he pans out.
How Do the Wild Replace Zuccarello and Pitlick?
The Wild called up forwards Kyle Rau and Connor Dewar when the team placed Zuccarello and Pitlick on the COVID injured reserve Thursday. Rau has been in Minnesota’s system since the 2017-18 season. He’s looked great in his 193 games with Iowa in the American Hockey League (AHL), notching 151 points during that span. Unfortunately, he hasn’t translated that into NHL success, recording four assists without a goal in 23 games with the Wild. With Zuccarello being out of the lineup for the next little while, this could be Rau’s best chance to prove his worth, especially with him inching closer to 30 years old.
On the other hand, this could be Dewar’s first of many chances to make an NHL impact. The 22-year-old has spent most of his professional career in the AHL, getting better with each passing season. He went from having 19 points in 52 games in 2019-20 to 23 points in 32 games last season. He’s continued that trend this year, tallying four points in four games with Iowa. Dewar’s play earned him Thursday’s call-up and a spot in the 4-1 loss over the Seattle Kraken where he played nearly nine minutes, finishing with a penalty and a couple of shots on goal.
The former third-round draft pick has a lot of offensive upside, as proven by his 149 points in his final 127 Western Hockey League games. Considering how the Wild’s centers have a combined 10 points in the club’s first seven games, Minnesota should consider giving Dewar more ice time and seeing what he could do with it.
Another player in consideration for a call-up, depending on how long Zuccarello and Pitlick are out for, is Adam Beckman. One of the Wild’s top prospects, Beckman had a terrific training camp and a lot of people were surprised that he doesn’t already have a spot in the NHL. He has three points in four games with Iowa so far this season and has the tools to be a top-six forward one day. He’s only 20 years old, so there isn’t any rush to get him into the Wild’s lineup, but it’s worth considering giving him a look as a potential Zuccarello replacement for the next week or so.
The Wild could also get some help from their veterans in the meantime. For example, Victor Rask and Nick Bjugstad have both underperformed in the first seven days, only finding the back of the net once each. In fact, only three Minnesota players have scored more than once at all. Even Kirill Kaprizov has been having his struggles, starting the year with a seven-game goal drought. It’s still too early to write off any of these players, but nearly 10 percent of the season has passed, so something must change quick.
Wild Can Salvage the Situation
It’s definitely rough knowing that the Wild lost two players to COVID-19 for the next few games. Fortunately, there are a lot of backup options in the organization, both in terms of veterans and players in the minors. If the call-ups and everyone else can play to their potential, Minnesota may come out of this next stretch unscathed.
As a lifelong hockey fan and recent Master of Journalism graduate, it’s always been my dream to write about the sport. That’s why you can find me here on THW covering the Minnesota Wild! You may also see my work on FanDuel, the Ottawa Citizen, and various sports betting sites. Follow me on Twitter @devplat!