With his bold trade of Brent Burns, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher made it clear free agency will take a back seat to homegrown talent.
It was Friday night, and Craig Leipold figured he would have his general manager, his new coach and his large scouting staff over for a few drinks and a few laughs.
The party lasted until the wee hours of Saturday morning.
"They wouldn't leave my apartment until 3 in the morning," the Wild owner said. "I've never seen a happier group of people in my entire life. They're giddy about what our future looks like."
It's hard to call a draft in which you trade Brent Burns a success. Burns is skilled, enormous and mobile -- a unique blend of defenseman that can't simply be replaced.
But the 2011 draft might go down as the weekend General Manager Chuck Fletcher seized control of his team.
There were signals last June when Fletcher found a way to select four high-end forwards in the first 59 picks. But with Friday night's trade of Burns to San Jose, Fletcher's vision of the Wild, the path he wants to take this franchise, is crystal clear for all to see now.
The Wild is done cutting corners.
It's loading up on talented young players in an aggressive attempt to catch up to the rest of the NHL.
Fletcher came to the Wild with a glaringly bare cupboard.
But for two years, Fletcher, maybe because of the pressure he felt to win now and deliver the fans and his owner an instantaneous playoff contender, tried to do two things at once -- add young talent while sprinkling in expensive free agents as well as player trades that he hoped could provide immediate help.
That's why he traded for disappointing Cam Barker, the 2004 No. 3 overall pick who is five years older than Nick Leddy, and Chuck Kobasew. That's why he signed Matt Cullen and Eric Nystrom, two players who didn't have good first seasons in Minnesota.
There are no shortcuts to success, so this path has had the Wild spinning its wheels.
The Wild parlayed Burns into promising young goal-scorer Devin Setoguchi and two young assets -- Charlie Coyle, the Boston University power forward who many considered one of the Sharks' top prospects, and a first-round pick that became Zack Phillips, a center who amassed 95 points last season at St. John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
It came after the Wild added defenseman Jonas Brodin, thought by some to be the best skater in the draft. It came before the Wild added four more players Saturday, including local products Mario Lucia and Nick Seeler.
So you take all of this weekend's additions and couple them with the fact that a year ago the Wild drafted Mikael Granlund, Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson and Jason Zucker -- four players who met or exceeded expectations last season -- there's suddenly reason for optimism for Wild fans.
Patience will be needed
But it will be at least a year until any of these players turns pro, and even then, with the draft-and-development philosophy Fletcher has been preaching lately, there's no guarantee they will start their careers with the Wild.
So this will take patience from fans. And for this to work, it will take patience from Leipold.
Leipold must be a vested partner, meaning even if there's short-term pain, he has got to let the long-term plan play out.
Leipold says he's all-in.
"This is all about winning the Cup. And I don't think in past years we've done a good job of really determining how we're going to get from Point A to Point B to Point C," Leipold said. "We are now seeing a clear path of how we could get there.
"I absolutely believe in it. No question. Are we better next year? Yeah, I think so. But I know we're better the year after, and we're a lot better the year after that."
Setoguchi should help now, but his age of 24 made him even more appealing. He loves to shoot, which the Wild hopes is contagious for its pass-happy players. Coach Mike Yeo envisions Setoguchi playing on a line with playmaker Pierre-Marc Bouchard -- probably with center Mikko Koivu.
But it was the other assets that made the trade worth it.
"I like everything about [Coyle] except that he doesn't belong to us," Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said. "He is a blue-chip prospect. You get him, you get the first-round pick and you get Devin Setoguchi, who's a pretty darn good hockey player.
"Not slighting San Jose's end of the deal because they got a pretty good player back, but I thought Chuck turned a player that didn't want to sign here into some pretty significant assets."
With Burns gone, defense in flux
While it's probably unfair to say Burns didn't want to sign here, Burns' agent, Ron Salcer, has a track record. Almost every free agent he's had in his career ultimately left via free agency.
The Wild couldn't risk that with Burns, especially when he could land such pieces.
That doesn't mean Burns' departure won't hurt. Few lug the puck up the ice like him, few defensemen create offense like him.
It's a loss. The Wild's back end will be young next season, with Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon and Clayton Stoner likely joining Nick Schultz, Marek Zidlicky and Greg Zanon. Nate Prosser and Justin Falk will vie for spots, and the Wild probably will need to sign one defenseman in free agency.
It should be noted that Friday, Fletcher mentioned every defensemen in the organization -- even Tyler Cuma, who is coming off major knee surgery -- except Barker. The Wild has tried hard to trade him and appears to be leaning toward buying him out by Thursday if it can't.
Fletcher met Saturday with Barker's agent. Fletcher also still is looking at trade options for character forwards.
But the Wild's direction is clearly defined now. No more taking shortcuts.
The team is stockpiling young talent, especially at forward, with the belief that the more you have, the better likelihood there is that you will develop a young, talented, impactful core that can take this franchise to greater heights.
It will require patience. But this is what needs to be done for the Wild to gain ground.
"If you look down the road a little bit, there's a number of guys with a real offensive upside," Yeo said. "I got a couple texts from people yesterday with other organizations, saying, 'Man, a couple years down the road, you guys are going to be pretty loaded up front.' "
Michael Russo • firstname.lastname@example.org
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