Chuck Fletcher had been talking to one of his best friends, Buffalo Sabres General Manager Tim Murray, since the summertime about Chris Stewart.
“The price never seemed to fit,” the Wild GM said Monday a few hours after “we beat the buzzer” by acquiring the Sabres power forward for a 2017 second-round pick.
Murray had shopped Stewart since acquiring him from the St. Louis Blues in last March’s blockbuster for Ryan Miller, but he wanted a hefty return from such teams as the Wild, Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins and others. Finally, after a couple of scenarios fell through, Murray quickly called Fletcher, who called first thing Monday morning to tell him to remember his number if the price dropped.
“I wish he would have given me more than a few minutes,” said Fletcher, who agreed to the deal three minutes before the 2 p.m. deadline once the Sabres agreed to pay half the $465,000 still owed to Stewart, a pending free agent this summer.
With the Wild 15-3-2 since acquiring goalie Devan Dubnyk and 13-2-1 since the All-Star break, Fletcher had talked in recent days about not wanting to do anything that could adversely affect team chemistry.
The Wild has become a fast, hardworking, defensively structured, well-balanced team.
But the appeal of acquiring the 6-foot-2, 231-pound, 27-year-old Stewart even though it’ll force coach Mike Yeo to alter his lines was worth the risk, Fletcher said.
“I think we’re a very fast team, we have a lot of skill. I like our depth, especially now,” Fletcher said. “But probably the one fair criticism you could level at us is our lack of size. And Chris is a big, strong guy who brings a lot of toughness to our team, but yet he’s a player that has contributed offensively, can play on the power play, can really shoot the puck, he’s willing to go to the net.”
Stewart, taken 18th overall by Colorado in 2006, scored 28 goals in each of his second and third seasons and 18 goals during the lockout-shortened, 48-game 2013 season. Thirty-two of his 126 career goals have come on the power play. This year, however, he scored 11 goals and 25 points in 61 games and is minus-30, tied for second-worst in the NHL.
Over the years, Stewart has been maligned for everything from his fitness to his work ethic. But when he is engaged, Stewart can be overpowering. He can score, scrap and check, and the hope is all of that helps the Wild compete against more rugged Western Conference teams.
Fletcher said he has done his due diligence on Stewart, is comfortable with what he has heard, “and he’s incredibly motivated. It’s a contract year for him.”
Comically, Stewart was informed of the trade live on Canada’s TSN.
“The Minnesota Wild? Sounds good,” said Stewart, who has 253 points and 510 penalty minutes in 443 games. “I’m excited I’ll get a chance to play in the playoffs.”
Stewart has played much better the past few months, and it came after he and Sabres coach Ted Nolan had a heated meeting after a benching. “Two bulls going at it in a china shop,” Nolan said at the time.
Before a Monday night flight from Tampa, where the Sabres were, to Minnesota, Stewart said new teammate Zach Parise already reached out to him and, “It’s going to be a great challenge. I look forward to it. It’s a fresh start and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Adding my size and my physicality to that lineup, I think that’s something they’re looking for.”
Stewart, wearing No. 44, will debut Tuesday against the Senators.
“Minnesota has always been one of my favorite places to play,” he said. “The fans there have been great, and coming to that arena, they’re always fired up and ready to support that team. Being on the other end of it now, I’m sure it’ll feel a little bit different, but exciting.”
Fletcher had previously insisted he wouldn’t trade this June’s second-round pick. He dealt a first and second to Buffalo two trade deadlines ago for Jason Pominville and two seconds last year to his favorite partner, Buffalo, last trade deadline for Matt Moulson.
“We seem to constantly trade our second-round picks to that franchise,” quipped Fletcher, who will have two years to try to reacquire a 2017 second. He felt the price was worth it after also acquiring Sean Bergenheim from Florida last week for a 2016 third.
“Hopefully this is a big upgrade for us,” Fletcher said.