Hours after saying nothing was imminent and he planned to let the dust settle, Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher detonated a dust cloud into the sky.
In a two-pronged rapid-fire move Friday night that came together “incredibly quickly,” the Wild traded Devin Setoguchi inside its division to the Winnipeg Jets for a 2014 second-round pick and followed it up by signing a player many consider one of the NHL’s biggest cheap-shot artists.
Matt Cooke, who routinely used to draw the ire of Wild fans as a member of the loathed Vancouver Canucks, signed a three-year, $7.5 million deal with the Wild. Cooke, who gained a reputation as a dirty player during the early portion of his five-year career with Pittsburgh, has worked to clean up his act the past few years and has developed into a quality two-way winger who can score, kill penalties, work relentlessly and yes, hit with the best of them.
“There’s no question when he came into the league, he was an agitating player, a player that was in the league because of his physical play and his ability to get players off their game,” said Fletcher, assistant GM in Pittsburgh when the Penguins acquired Cooke. “He’s really evolved.”
Fletcher called Cooke the ideal third-line winger — blocks shots, has scored 12-19 goals in seven of his 12 full seasons despite little power-play time, “angles well, cycles well, is good along the wall,” skates well and has played more than1,000 regular-season and playoff games.
He won a Stanley Cup with Wild coach Mike Yeo as Pittsburgh’s assistant in 2009. Still, because of his reputation, some Wild fans voiced shock and vitriol at the signing on social media — a similar reaction to when former Wild GM Doug Risebrough traded for Chris Simon in 2008.
“Matt is a player that brings a lot to the table,” Fletcher said. “I think when everybody watches him as a player and focuses in on what he is now as a player versus what his reputation is as a player, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised of what you see.”
Earlier Friday, Fletcher watched from the sidelines as NHL players changed addresses at a frantic pace. Wild veterans Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard were two of those players. Cullen signed a two-year, $7 million deal with Nashville; Bouchard a one-year, $2 million deal with the Islanders. The Wild did make Keith Ballard’s signing official and re-signed defenseman Jared Spurgeon to a three-year, $8 million deal.
But when the Wild acquired Nino Niederreiter for Cal Clutterbuck last week, Setoguchi became expendable. Fletcher said the Setoguchi market heated up Friday afternoon when certain teams like the Jets missed out on free agents. With Setoguchi a year from free agency, Fletcher decided the time was right to trade him, gain $3 million in cap space and sign a “different type of player” in Cooke with the money.
Setoguchi, who came to the Wild in the Brent Burns trade at the 2011 draft, scored 32 goals and 63 points in 117 games with the Wild. At times, it was rocky, but the streaky Setoguchi caught fire last year (12 goals in a 23-game stretch after none in the first 10 games) alongside Cullen and was a big reason the Wild made the playoffs.
“Devin came in and gave us what he could over the last two years, but our lineup has changed,” Fletcher said, referring to the additions of players like Zach Parise and Jason Pominville and the fact that youngsters Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund will be battling for top-6 spots next season. Those players will be relied upon heavily.
The Setoguchi trade should allow his buddy, Dany Heatley, a 360-goal scorer who was on pace for 25 over an 82-game season last year, to move back to a top-6 role.
Cooke, 34, has scored 153 goals and 360 points with 1,068 penalty minutes in 935 games. He’ll replace Clutterbuck’s lost physical element.
The problem could be the extracurriculars he may bring. He has long been the poster boy for knee-hunting and head hunting. It was his blind-side, yet technically legal, head shot on Boston’s Marc Savard in 2010 that led to the NHL cracking down on hits targeting the head.
Cooke has been suspended multiple times in his career, including four times with the Penguins. One was a 17-gamer for a head shot on the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh, one even Penguins GM Ray Shero said was “exactly the kind of hit we’re trying to get out of the game.”
He has been so controversial, many around the NHL accused him of intentionally stomping on the back of Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson’s foot last season, slicing his Achilles’ tendon.
Cooke denied it and he received no league discipline.
Cooke said Friday his reputation will never disappear, but he has worked to change it. Penguins writers so feel he rehabilitated himself, they, to the tune of much criticism, nominated Cooke for the Masterton Trophy two years ago.
“I still feel that’s the way I need to play to be successful,” Cooke said. “For me, it was eliminating the high-risk hits, and I always approached it to go out and get the biggest hit possible. With the speed of the game and the way [you can’t] hold up, it just brought in some situations that were a lot more dangerous.”
Cooke was on the 2003 Canucks team that blew a 3-1 series lead to the Wild in the playoffs. He had several run-ins with Wild players over the years.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of fans that aren’t fond of me and they remember when I played for Vancouver, but hopefully I can change their opinion quickly,” Cooke said.