The last time a Wild general manager acquired a goon who drove his fan base to take up pitchforks and tuck away checkbooks, he might as well have put his house on the market.
Chuck Fletcher’s signing of Matt Cooke is not a direct equivalent to Doug Risebrough bringing in Chris Simon, but both moves were made for the same reason and raised the same question: Did the GM know what he was doing?
Risebrough brought in Simon to toughen up a soft team, and his reaction to fan and media outrage over the move suggested he hadn’t fully investigated Simon’s bad acts.
Simon wound up playing little and poorly, and his history of comic-book-villain violence stained the reputation of a franchise that, to that point, had turned marketing and brand-building into an exact science. Simon didn’t make that Wild team any better, and his arrival became Risebrough’s perceptual Waterloo, a Mossy Cade on skates.
Fletcher, like Risebrough, is desperate to find tough players who don’t, like Zenon Konopka, go directly from the bench to the penalty box. Fletcher, like Risebrough, may have underestimated his fan base’s hatred of a goon.
Cooke is a cheap-shot artist. He is a dirty player. He’s a better player than Simon was, and he’s better than Konopka, and he might be better than the outgoing Cal Clutterbuck, but the acquisition hints of desperation. To quell fan backlash, Cooke will have to play well enough to allow Fletcher to quote the proverb, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” which, translated into hockey talk, is “Crosschecking someone from Vancouver is better than crosschecking someone for Vancouver.”
Cooke is only the most obvious of the risks Fletcher is taking this offseason, as he desperately tries to reshape a team that has little room to maneuver under the salary cap. In the months following his franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2008, Fletcher has dumped six regulars, including three of his top seven point scorers (Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi and Pierre-Marc Bouchard) and his most physical player (Clutterbuck).
Sometimes, Fletcher seems to confuse activity with accomplishment. Next summer, he will have more money to spend and will be in position to sign former Gophers star Thomas Vanek. This year, his team will improve only if a handful of players already on the team improve, and if Jason Pominville justifies the high price Fletcher paid for him before the trading deadline.
Having traded future No. 1 goalie Matt Hackett for Pominville, Fletcher went all-in on the aging goalie who wore down in April, Niklas Backstrom. Will Backstrom really be better this year during an 82-game schedule than he was last year during a 48-game schedule?
Having ditched four forwards, Fletcher will require dramatic improvement from youngsters such as Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and the recently acquired Nino Neiderreiter. Would you want to bet your job that all three will show linear improvement?
Having traded so many assets for Pominville, the Wild will require goal-scoring and excellent all-around play from him. He is an accomplished player who will turn 31 during the season and whose plus-minus since the beginning of the 2010 season is minus-5.
Fletcher’s moves make sense if the goal is to build a powerhouse team in 2014-15, when Zach Parise and Ryan Suter will still be in their prime, Jonas Brodin will be entering his, Pominville will still be valuable, and Vanek is expected to sign on.
For the upcoming season, Fletcher’s moves have placed additional pressure on coach Mike Yeo to manufacture continuity while he tries to prove himself as an NHL coach.
Rebuilding is a Minnesota sports tradition. But rebuilding was not what Wild fans were sold when they bought season ticket packages to see Parise and Suter play, and they certainly didn’t think they were buying the privilege of watching Cooke slew-foot some poor guy from Winnipeg.