Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

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A deeper look into today's Matt Moulson/Cody McCormick acquisitions

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news, Wild trade news Updated: March 5, 2014 - 8:10 PM

First of all, I’m sorry to report my Thursday online chat has been scrapped. I’ll have to postpone until next week because the Wild has pushed back Thursday’s practice so Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick can arrive in time and Friday I’ll need to hustle to the airport after practice to fly to Dallas.

But I’ll do my best to answer as many questions here as I can.

Matt Moulson will wear No. 26 here. And Cody McCormick No. 8.

OK, have a good night.

No, seriously, as for the trade of Moulson and McCormick from Buffalo for Torrey Mitchell and two second-round picks, heck of a deal in my estimation. As I say often, Chuck Fletcher is nothing if not bold, and always has something up his sleeve.

I always find the maturation of an organization fascinating, and it’s interesting how the Wild has transitioned from being a trade-deadline seller to a buyer the past two years.

Last year, the Wild arguably paid a big price for Jason Pominville (two prospects and a first were the highlights), but Pominville had another year left on his deal and the Wild was obviously immediately interested in extending him, which it did by five years starting next year right before this season.

This year, Fletcher looked into doing similar “hockey trades,” but in the end, he likes the chemistry of this team, wanted to avoid trading a first-round pick for a second consecutive year and didn’t want to trade any of his top prospects. So early this morning, when he quickly realized he may be able to consummate a “draft pick” deal for Moulson with Sabres GM Tim Murray, that’s where he began to focus.

Other GM’s were dangling their rentals and asking for prospects like Matt Dumba, Gustav Olofsson and Kurtis Gabriel, Fletcher said, and he had no interest.  The other thing that made the Moulson/McCormick swap so intriguing was Fletcher would be able to include Mitchell, who wanted out, in the deal. That’s no slight against Mitchell, but he was playing a fourth-line role, so he’s replaced by the gritty, hard-nosed McCormick and the Wild gets out from under the $2.5 million salary and $1.9 million cap hit Mitchell had owed to him next season. That’ll create more roster and cap flexibility.

Now, before I get more into detail of what Fletcher/Moulson said during today’s availability, I try my best to answer two questions I see I’ve been asked most on Twitter (since most people seem to want news in abbreviated 140-character like methods, this will save those people from having to read through the rest of the minutia included on what’s bound to be a super-sized blog).

1. What will the lines look like? Well, I don’t have the answer for you because we’ll see an initial taste as to what coach Mike Yeo is thinking at Thursday’s practice. But my shot in the dark for at least Thursday’s practice is similar to what I guessed on Twitter earlier today, but it has changed a little.

Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville

Matt Moulson-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle

Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Dany Heatley

Cody McCormick-Erik Haula-Justin Fontaine-Nino Niederreiter

I think at least in Thursday’s practice, we’ll see these top 2 lines. We saw earlier this season putting Heatley on the fourth line didn’t work, so maybe they eventually go with a Moulson-Koivu-Heatley line and Cooke-Coyle-Nino on the third. That would mean the fourth would be a combination of McCormick, Haula, Brodziak and Fontaine.

Yeo will have a lot of options and I’m sure there will be tinkering.  For instance, I’m not sure what he’s thinking, but maybe McCormick plays against the rugged teams (Wild played St. Louis three times down the stretch and could be staring at the Blues in the first round) and sits against the faster teams.

Obviously, there are always injuries, too, so no lines are set in stone. If the Wild’s healthy, I think it’s clear that Jason Zucker will initially have to return to Iowa when he gets healthy.

2. Does trading for Moulson preclude the Wild from signing Thomas Vanek if it so wishes in the offseason?

Well, only if at the end of the day the Wild re-signs Moulson. And it’s honestly way too soon to think about it. As of now, it’s a rental. Now, if Moulson plays so well and fits in so well and the Wild does damage in the playoffs, yes, the Wild I’m sure would absolutely consider re-signing Moulson.

“You never know,” Fletcher said. “I’m open-minded.”

Moulson also echoed that, but he too said it’s the last thing he’s thinking about right now: “We’ll see what happens. I think that’s the last thing I’ve thought about right now is free agency. I have a million other things going through my mind,” like “getting to a new team and trying to help them win.”

So again, so many things can happen between now and July 1. The cap isn’t unlimited. The Wild has to analyze its needs going into next season and how much money it can spend in certain areas. The biggest priority will be figuring out its goalie situation. Then it’ll figure out everything else.

I do think it's fair to say the Wild was in on Vanek. I think it's also very clear to say that Islanders GM Garth Snow held onto his cards WAY too long and got caught in a gigantic way. He basically wound up having to trade Vanek to Montreal for a mid-level prospect and MAYBE two draft picks if Montreal makes the playoffs. Not good after acquiring Vanek for Moulson, a first and a second.

Regardless, put Vanek in the back of your head and … don’t ask me again about him until May, maybe June.

Onward:

Fletcher says he drove to the Wild’s offices today not knowing if he would be able to make a trade. If he couldn’t, he would be OK with that because he’s been very happy with the current team and how it’s been playing.

But he felt he owed it to the players to kick some tires and try to improve the team and “reward” them for a job well done the past few months. He said it’s important to send messages in this business.

But, he didn’t want to trade his prospects or his first.

He zeroed in on Buffalo because the Wild has been scouting the Sabres for weeks (humorously, the day after that late-January bogus report out of Buffalo came out that the Wild made an offer for Ryan Miller and a trade could be imminent, assistant GM Brent Flahr was in town scouting looking at guys like Miller and Drew Stafford. Miller didn’t even start the game). Fletcher has also had tons of trade talks with Tim Murray and they discussed several scenarios about many different things.

“As the day wore on, we got fortunate,” Fletcher said. “We got fortunate to get in a situation where Buffalo was willing to discuss a draft-pick trade with us. It’s a good deal for them. They get two draft picks. And from our standpoint, we were able to acquire a very good goal scorer in Matt Moulson, a big, energetic, gritty guy in Cody McCormick, who we feel will be very important for us down the stretch. And perhaps as importantly, we were able to move some cap space for next season. So we accomplished the things we set out to do and were able to do so by moving a couple draft picks over a three-year span. Coming into today with about $4-plus million in cap space on a full year basis, we’re pretty happy with what we were able to accomplish.

Moulson was intriguing because the Wild, if you didn’t know, have to work really hard some nights to score goals. Minnesota ranks 25th in the NHL at 2.36 goals per game, so thank goodness for its goaltending and sixth-best goals against.

“Historically, this team has not been a high-scoring team,” Fletcher said. “We have not been the last couple years. I do believe however the last six, eight weeks, we’re probably scoring [2.74] goals per game. So we have been better offensively lately, but when you look at our club, you probably wouldn’t describe us as a high-end offensive team. I think that’s fair. … If we can add somebody that can help us score another goal every other game or something to that effect, we think that’ll make a big difference.

On the lines and options Yeo now has at his disposal, Fletcher said, “We’re trying to get to a place where we have at least three lines that can score and play defense. A lot gets made out of line combinations and who plays with whom, and I understand that, and if Zach’s playing with Mikko and all these different things, but ultimately to be successful, and I think we saw this a little bit in the playoffs last year, you need to have more than one line that you can rely on. Mike has experimented a lot this year with different line combinations; I think that’s great. I think all the players are used to playing with different players. But obviously these two players will give us more depth and if we can get to a place where we have two or three lines that teams have to worry about offensively, two power-play units that teams have to worry about, so you maybe don’t even have a No.  1 and a No.  2 unit, you have a 1A and a 1B, that makes you much more difficult to coach against, to play against and to gameplan against, and I think that’s where we want to get to.”

As I mentioned on a blog last week when the Wild acquired Brad Winchester (he’s in Iowa), it’s very clear the Wild has made a conscious decision to try to get bigger the last few years. Look back at that blog (I think it posted last Wednesday in Edmonton), but it had all the players I’m talking about on there.

“And even look at the draft last year with Olofsson and Kurtis Gabriel who’s really come on this year and [UMD’s] Carson Soucy,” Fletcher said. “We really are trying to get bigger. First you try to get skill, then hopefully you can add some size. It’s a big man’s league. Maybe some people would disagree with me, but I really truly believe that the officiating standards change as the year goes on and what’s a penalty early in the year is not necessarily a penalty later in the year and that’s OK. But you have to be able to skate through hooks and interferences and some of the other things that are a little more prevalent. It becomes a bigger man’s game – or more of a competitive man’s game. You have to compete and certainly size helps, but I think that’s an area every team looks to this time of year and we’ve made a conscious effort in that regard.”

How does this year compare to the Pominville deadline deal? “Last year with Pominville, he had a year left on his contract so we were prepared to pay a big price. We really felt we needed to add more talent and with Pominville you’re getting a guy that was a captain in this league, who has a tremendous amount of character and a very good two-way player. But he’s also a talented offensive player. We wanted more talent to play with Koivu and Parise and Suter and to play with our top end guys. We’re becoming a more talented team as we see the evolution of Granlund and Coyle and Zucker and Niederreiter and these types of players. This year there was a little bit more risk I suppose because Moulson’s contract is expiring. But yet any time you’re paying second-round picks for good hockey players, to me, it’s a really good move. We’re very comfortable with the gamble. We’re fortunate – our scouts do a great job. They nail picks left and right. So to give up a second-round pick, to me they’ll probably hit on the third. And so I’m able to take some chances with our picks because of the way our scouts draft.”

On making a trade with his buddy Tim Murray (friends from Florida and Anaheim), Fletcher jokingly said, “No, he was tough. But fortunately I have some good background information on him that he doesn’t want revealed. No, Timmy did a great job today. He picked up some picks and some prospects and that team will turn around quickly. He knew what he was doing. He moved a couple pending UFAs and got a couple second round picks for them so it’s a good deal for him and a deal we’re very, very comfortable making with where we’re at as a franchise right now.

On today’s market: “It was a different market. To me, prices went down a little bit this year. You saw basically a lot of pretty good hockey players who are pending UFAs getting traded for the equivalent of two second-rounders, or a second-rounder and a prospect. Certainly situations like that as opposed to late first-round picks. Teams seemed to hold on to their first-round picks this year. The other interesting thing about it is there were a lot of goal scorers that were traded and a lot of goalies. I can never remember another year where this many talented goaltenders switched teams. And you go through the list and some of them may be a little bit older, but again really well-recognized, established goaltenders were traded. I’ve never seen a year like that, and a lot of goal scorers and very few defensemen. Some years there’s more defensemen. Every year has a different tone, but I think you saw teams pulling back a little bit this year unwilling maybe to trade that first-rounder or that elite prospect, and maybe offering seconds and third-round picks instead, which obviously we were very happy with.”

“It’s difficult to move first-round picks,” Fletcher continued. “We did it last year and, again, we’re thrilled, but in this cap system you have to draft and develop. First-rounders are typically anywhere from 50 to 90 percent success rate depending on where in the first round you select. Second-rounders can be 25 to 30 percent, so there’s a massive drop-off. You’ve got to hold on to your first-rounders a lot. Occasionally you’ve got to step up, and again, it was a great decision for us last year. This year to me it was not, we wanted to hold on to our firsts and we did and that’s a good thing.”

Moulson said, “Minnesota is an incredible hockey state. The fans of Minnesota, it’s pretty easy to see how passionate they are. It’s exciting to go to a team that’s doing extremely well right now and a great fan base. I’m just excited to get there and help this team win any way I can.”

On what he knows about the Wild: “I think when you’re in different conferences you don’t see the other too much. But obviously you follow the league and see the love that the Wild have been getting and playing extremely well obviously. They’ve got some great players, so I’m excited to be a part of that group and try to get some wins.”

On Buffalo: “Obviously there’s been a lot of change. I think I’ve gone through the most change I’ve ever had in my career this year being traded from the Islanders and going through some changes in Buffalo, but obviously I’m very thankful to the Sabres – they took my family and I in. It was a quick transition there. I think my son was two-weeks-old when I got traded. It was a little bit of a whirlwind but obviously I made some pretty close friends in the last couple months, but I guess I’ve been rumored for a while that they’d probably try to shop me off again. So I’m definitely a lot more ready for it this time than the last time around. It’s something I was prepared for and got my family prepared for. We’re just excited to be part of the Wild family now.”

Who does he know on the Wild: “I know Nino a little bit. Zach Parise is good friends with Kyle Okposo so I know him by association, and I was able to text with him. I feel like I know him pretty well just through Kyle Okposo so other than that I don’t know too many guys, I didn’t know too many guys when I went to Buffalo, so I don’t really see that as a problem. The hockey group takes guys in and makes them feel pretty welcome right away.”

I didn’t talk with McCormick today. I’ll talk to him after Thursday’s practice, but like Moulson, the Buffalo writers say he’s a great guy and a player that should help.

OK, that’s it for me. I've got to do my Wild Minute and get upstairs, watch a period or two of high-school hockey and get home. Talk to you after Thursday’s practice.

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