ST. PAUL, Minn. — Chuck Fletcher wasn’t quite done working on the first day of NHL free agency.
Fletcher, the Minnesota Wild’s general manager, said he didn’t expect any more major moves on Friday after the team re-signed defenseman Jared Spurgeon to a three-year deal and officially added defenseman Keith Ballard after free agency opened at 11 a.m. CT on Friday. But then the Wild altered its forward ranks a bit in the evening.
Minnesota traded Devin Setoguchi to the Winnipeg Jets for a 2014 second-round pick and then signed Matt Cooke to a three-year contract. The Wild saved $3 million against the salary cap by trading Setoguchi with one year left on his contract and then reportedly signed Cooke for an average of $2.5 million per year.
Fletcher said “things started blowing up a little bit” after he met with reporters earlier in the day to talk about the Ballard and Spurgeon signings.
“Obviously you have conversations with teams from time to time, but the market on Devin heated up quite a bit in the afternoon,” Fletcher said. “It was markedly different from where we were a week ago and certainly this morning even. Teams I guess had maybe lost out on other players or what have you, but we felt it was an opportunity to make a hockey trade with Devin to get some value for him and clear the cap space and sign a different type of player in Matt Cooke, who we felt would really complement the players on our team well.”
Cooke, 34, had eight goals and 13 assists in 48 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. A known agitator and physical player, Cooke had 36 penalty minutes last season, 97 hits and led Pittsburgh with 41 blocked shots.
But it was the evolution of Cooke’s game and the type of player he is now that interested Fletcher and the Wild, who know Cooke well. Fletcher was an assistant general manager and Minnesota coach Mike Yeo was an assistant coach in Pittsburgh when Cooke was acquired by the Penguins in 2008.
Cooke had a reputation for being a “dirty” player earlier in his career, but said he’s changed his approach.
“It’s something that I feel that where I’m in a situation where it’s never going to be gone,” Cooke said of the reputation. “But to guarantee myself success in the way that I play night in and night out, it’s something that I had to work on. I spent a lot of time doing video and a lot of time trying to teach myself from the approach out to change and feel like I’ve accomplished that.”
Cooke has averaged 25.7 points and nearly 11 goals per season in his 14-year NHL career. He’s also known as a strong penalty killer, while reshaping his game to continue his career.
Adding Cooke, Fletcher said he was focused on adding a different element to the Wild and fortifying the third line with Cooke’s varying skill-set. With Setoguchi, Fletcher felt the team had an abundance of top-six forwards for the scoring lines, including veterans Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Dany Heatley and young players like Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. Cooke helps add different skills and more defined roles for the third and fourth lines.
“Players like Matt bring different dimensions, but he has become a really good two-way hockey player,” Fletcher said. “Somebody that I know personally, but more importantly, I’ve watched the evolution of his game. He’s really become a good two-way player and somebody I think will complement the players on our team. We had some duplication of role on our team with players maybe all competing for the same spot. Again, I think this kind of clears that up a little bit, gives the coaches different options and a different look in certain places and helps the cap yet again.
“It was kind of a crazy afternoon. Things came together incredibly quickly and for us it was a move we liked from a hockey perspective and we liked from a cap perspective.”
Cooke said he’d been talking with several teams the past two days as a NHL rule allowed teams to contact players and agents, without any formal negotiations. Friday’s action, and Cooke’s agreement with the Wild happened suddenly.
“It came together really quick,” Cooke said. “It’s a day where sometimes it requires patience, sometimes it requires urgent decisions. I was excited when they called and obviously a coaching staff and general manager that I’m familiar with and just excited to come and play with.”
Setoguchi, who was acquired by Minnesota on draft day in 2011, is known more for his scoring. Setoguchi, 26, had 13 goals and 14 assists last year for the Wild, but also had 92 hits, ranking second on the team behind Cal Clutterbuck. Clutterbuck was traded on Sunday to the New York Islanders with Minnesota receiving Niederreiter, still a prospect at 20 years old, in return.
Setoguchi was inconsistent during his time with the Wild after being acquired, along with Coyle and a first-round draft pick that turned into Zack Phillips for Brent Burns. Setoguchi had 32 goals in two seasons in Minnesota and has 116 goals in 384 NHL games.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say he fell out of favor,” Fletcher said of Setoguchi’s tenure with the Wild. “I don’t think it’s any secret we’re up against the cap and Devin’s going to be an unrestricted free agent in one year. We have a lot of young players that we hope can maybe pick up some of the offensive slack. So, realistically, it was going to be difficult to re-sign him going forward and with his cap hit this year, it made sense for us to try to maximize value while we can.
“To get a second-round pick for him is good value … I think he came in and gave us what he could and over the last two years our lineup has changed. We’ve added Parise, we’ve added Pominville, we’ve added Heatley after we acquired Devin and a lot of these young players have matured and come onto the scene professionally.
“So, again, I think we have a lot of wingers that ideally should play in the top six, that should play on your top two lines. With Matt Cooke, we’re getting a guy that ideally should play on our third line. Again, I think we’re set up better as a team today and we certainly have a little bit more cap flexibility now than what we had earlier. So, we feel it’s a good solid move for our hockey team.”