With season-long scuttlebutt that the Wild might look to sign free-agent-to-be Thomas Vanek this summer, Minnesota beat Wednesday’s trade deadline by acquiring the high-scoring forward traded for Vanek earlier this season.
For the second year in a row, the Wild, 14-4-2 since Jan. 2, winner of five in a row and hoping to do damage in the playoffs, was a big-time buyer at the deadline.
In exchange for second-round draft picks in 2014 and 2016 and fourth-line winger Torrey Mitchell, the Wild landed three-time 30-goal scorer Matt Moulson and hard-nosed forward Cody McCormick from the Buffalo Sabres.
“This is a move made to help us win games right now,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “We weren’t prepared to give up our top prospects or our first-round picks, but I felt if we could move anything else to help our team and show our team that we believe in them, to reward them for what they’ve done the last two months in particular, I felt it was very important.
“Who knows where this team will go, but I’m pretty excited to see the journey.”
Finding a target
The Wild has spent the past dozen games scouting the Sabres heavily, especially Drew Stafford and Moulson. Fletcher held several trade talks with Sabres GM Tim Murray, his pal from their days in Florida and Anaheim, especially since Buffalo’s acquisition last Friday of goalie Jaroslav Halak.
On Tuesday, Fletcher changed goalie directions and acquired Ilya Bryzgalov from Edmonton. But Wednesday morning, Fletcher said he realized quickly he had a chance to pull off a “draft-pick” deal on Moulson, who is in the last year of his contract. Other GMs dangling “rentals” (players with expiring contracts) asked for Wild prospects Matt Dumba, Gustav Olofsson and Kurtis Gabriel.
Fletcher scoffed and focused on Moulson.
Acquired from the Islanders in October in a package for Vanek (who was dealt to Montreal on Wednesday), Moulson, 30, piqued Fletcher’s interest because the Wild, which has scored 2.74 goals per game the past 23 games, ranks 25th in offense (2.36 goals per game).
Moulson, a left winger who protects the puck well down low and has a hard wrist shot, has scored 17 goals and 38 points in 55 games this season between the Islanders and Sabres and 135 goals and 262 points in 377 career games. Perennially durable, he played all 82 games in three consecutive seasons from 2009 to ’12, topping 30 goals in each, including a career-high 36 goals and 69 points in 2011-12.
He has 47 career power-play goals, including 14 in 2011-12, the third-most in the NHL. He also thrives on the road. In 2011-12, Moulson scored 23 goals on the road, the second-most in the NHL behind superstar Steven Stamkos. From March 17 to April 3, the Wild plays eight of 10 games on the road.
“He’s scored goals in this league,” Fletcher said. “He’s an intelligent player, moves the puck well, he’s gritty, he gets to the front of the net, he’s a guy we think will thrive in the playoff drive that we’re undergoing now.”
Moulson, expected to skate on the left side of captain Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle at Thursday’s practice, knew from the moment he was traded to the rebuilding Sabres last fall that he would be moved again at the deadline.
“I think the rumors out there had me traded about 300 times by the time I got into Buffalo,” Moulson joked. “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 fanbase. I’m just excited to get there and help this team win any way I can.”
McCormick, 30, who skates well and is expected to play fourth-line center or wing, has scored 59 points and 503 penalty minutes in 358 games. In the last year of his deal, McCormick is known to drop the gloves. He was hampered by injuries, especially concussions, in Buffalo, but Fletcher feels the 6-2, 224-pounder will help against rugged teams down the stretch, especially in the physical playoffs.
“He’ll do anything for his teammates and the team,” Moulson said. “He’s a hard-nosed player that only knows how to play the game hard.”
The speedy Mitchell, 29, scored five goals and 12 assists in 103 games with the Wild, including one goal in 58 games this season. Stuck on the fourth line for two seasons, Mitchell asked to be traded, sources say, although he denied that Tuesday.
“This will be an opportunity for Torrey to go to Buffalo and play a bigger role, and hopefully reignite his career,” Fletcher said.
Most importantly, the Wild created more flexibility next season. Mitchell made $2.5 million in salary next season with a $1.9 million cap hit.
“That was very significant,” Fletcher said.
Moulson is in the final year of his contract with a $3.133 million cap hit.
A rental? Maybe not
Whether the trade was a “rental” will depend largely on how Moulson plays and how far the Wild goes.
“We’re open-minded,” Fletcher said.
It’d be ironic if Moulson plays so well that the Wild opts to re-sign him rather than potentially pursue Vanek.
“I don’t have anything set in stone for me,” Moulson said. “I’ll obviously take it day-by-day, but the Wild are obviously a great team and I just hope that I can be a part of this team going forward and winning a championship — I think that’s everyone’s goal.”
Moulson, McCormick and Bryzgalov are expected to arrive by Thursday’s practice. The Wild next plays Saturday at Dallas.
It’s clear Fletcher felt Wednesday was a good day.
“Any time you’re paying second-round picks for good hockey players, to me, it’s a really good move,” Fletcher said. “We’re very comfortable with the gamble.”