The Brent Burns trade, was it worth it, what does it mean for the future direction of this team?

Brent Burns

Do you remember where you were when significant historical events happen?  Most people do.  I vividly remember where I was when September 11th attacks happened (I was student teaching just about to start 2nd hour freshman Civics when a student ran into the room and said a plane hit the World Trade Center), when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded (I was in 2nd grade and at home from school because I was sick).  Even significant personal or sporting memories can certainly have an ability to etch their whole essence into your mind making its very own memory version of a time capsule.  I can still recall rather clearly the thoughts, feelings of watching Andrew Brunette score on Patrick Roy in overtime of Game 7 to send the Wild to the Western Conference Semifinals, as well as sitting in my dorm room on September 8th, 1998 as I watched Mark McGwire hit his then record-breaking 62nd home run off of the Chicago Cubs’ Steve Trachsel to break Roger Maris‘ single-season home run record.  Of course in the case of McGwire’s record it was tarnished by his admission of using performance enhancing drugs but that moment of watching that ball just sail over the fence in left center field and the fact it landed where there were no fans made it just about perfect.  There was no silly scramble and struggle over the home run ball, it made its important journey and it was gone.  From a personal perspective I can remember my first day of school, the first time I rode a bike without training wheels, the moment I was told my grandfather died of a stroke, graduation and many other memories as if those moments happened yesterday.  From a physiological perspective, memories capture the emotional state one was in when they happened.  If its a tragic memory you recall those moments with a feeling of loss, disbelief, pain or an emptiness.  If its a good memory you dwell on the fun, happiness and jubilation of it all.  This emotional tie to memory means that whenever we feel these emotions again memories can be triggered and we can have our minds brought back to the last time or previous moments where we felt that way.  So if you face tragedy again, you will recall how it felt during other tragic moments in your life and vice versa.  So here is my question to all of you Wild fans out there.  Do you remember where you were when you heard Brent Burns got traded?  Do you remember how that news made you feel? 

For myself I will probably never forget it.  I was attending the 1st round of the NHL draft at Xcel Energy Center.  I was with my partner in crime Theresa and a friend of ours, Bruce who is a fellow wild.com’er like we are.  I remember the initial cheer of the crowd as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman strode up to the podium and stated, “We have a trade to announce.”  Bettman continued, “the Minnesota Wild trade Brent Burns and a 2nd round pick in 2012 to San Jose” and at this point you felt the air sucked out of the building.  Some fans gasped, others put their hands to their head or faces as if to say “oh no” as they waited in a state of instant desperation.  As the commissioner would inform the size-able crowd you could almost sense he realized that he could re-assure the home crowd that everything was ok as he emphasized the word “and” as he told the State of Hockey that it was going to get the Sharks’ right winger Devin Setoguchi who just signed a 3-year deal, promising prospect Charlie Coyle (who very few knew much about at the time and whom I’ll talk more about later) and San Jose’s 1st round pick (28th Overall) in this year’s draft.  By the time Bettman was finished, a sigh of relief and a sudden surge of excitement gripped the Xcel Energy Center and most fans seemed to be fairly accepting of the deal.  Don’t believe me, check out this impromptu interview done by yahoo!’s Greg Wyshynski (aka Puck Daddy) as he asks Wild fans for their thoughts on the deal. 

The Wild would select Saint John Sea Dogs’ center Zack Phillips with the 1st round pick gained in the Burns deal and the transaction was more or less complete.  With such a huge moment in the Wild’s history taking place right in front of me, I decided it would be best if I waited a few days before I addressed it directly.  I wanted to let the moment soak in a bit and give it some careful consideration before I expounded too much on it.  So here are the big questions that we will attempt to address, did the Wild make the right deal and was this transaction that fits with the franchises’ current direction?  Additionally, what effect will this trade have on free agency and what should the team do in that regard when it opens this Friday?

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To answer the former portion of this two-part question.  We believe Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher made the right move to deal Brent Burns and I felt the return was adequate.  Fletcher made San Jose pay a heavy price for its star defenseman, and while it is unlikely the Wild will be able to replace a player with Burns’ talent and ability it was necessary for the team’s long-term plans.  The fact of the matter is the Wild, prior to the trade were up pretty close against the salary cap and whatever space may have been created by the league raising the cap ceiling to $64 million next year was likely going to be offset by the hefty raise they would have had to have given Burns to keep him here.  By all accounts Burns was happy playing in Minnesota, and he was coming off his best season as an NHL’er as he was just starting to enter the prime of his career.  That may not sound like the ideal time to ship out a star-calibre player but for the Wild seemed like the better option than handing him at least a 7-year deal where he’d be possibly making around $6-7 million per season.  With one year left on his current contract the team either pulled the trigger or took the dangerous risk of him leaving for nothing in return ala Marian Gaborik.  The franchise simply could not afford to let that happen twice.  A groin injury which had nagged the speedy Wild winger throughout his career flared up during his contract year making him immovable and all the team could do was watch and let him walk for nothing at all.  It still hangs a large shadow as potential assets that should’ve been acquired through a trade of the somewhat unhappy Slovak never materialized.  The Wild were probably wary of Burns’ history with concussions and one bad hit in training camp or a fall from his bicycle during off-season training may create the nightmare scenario of being unable to move their most valuable asset amidst contentious contract extension talk to feel that bitterness of Gaborik’s departure all over again.  Concussions can put a player on the shelf for an incredibly long time, just ask Pierre-Marc Bouchard or Sidney Crosby.  In the case of Crosby, imagine if he was in the final year of his contract and he got concussed forcing him to sit out all season, and the Penguins had to face the possibility of letting a player of that calibre walk away for nothing in return?!?!  So as unpalatable as the deal was for some, like the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s Sid Hartmann (as he responded to my call on his Sunday Sports Huddle radio show on 830 WCCO) where he maligned Minnesota franchises for being unable to keep its star talent with Burns being its most recent example the trade simply had to be done. 

To his credit Burns handled the news rather well for a player who attended the draft and was signing autographs as part of the team’s FanFest it held as a prelude to the draft festivities.  Here is an interview he did with KSTP’s 1500 AM’s and Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s Wild beat writer Michael Russo‘s interview with Brent Burns shortly after the trade was announced. 

Sort of makes you sad watching that doesn’t it?  As Michael Russo would point out in his newspaper column, Brent Burns was the ONLY Wild player that spends his summers in Twin Cities, the rest go home to wherever.  That in itself says a lot about Burns’ ties to the Twin Cities community, it clearly had become a home for him and his growing family and collection of pets.  I have little doubt there will be points in the immediate future where we (as fans) will miss Brent Burns’ enthusiasm and hockey skills but I still believe it was the right move to make. 

So what did the Wild really get? 

We’ll start to answer this question by talking about the two players directly acquired via the trade, Devin Setoguchi and Charlie Coyle.  First, Devin Setoguchi (72GP, 22 goals, 19 assists, 37 PIM’s, -2) is a sniping right winger who still has room to develop since he’s just 24 years old.  The former Saskatoon Blades star possesses excellent speed, and a knack for finding the puck and finishing on his opportunities.  He is not afraid to go into high traffic areas of the ice despite his average 6’0″, 195lbs frame but he does have a reputation as a streaky scorer.  The Taber, Alberta-native comes to the Wild having just signed a 3-year deal worth $3 million per season, which may make you wonder how the news of this trade hit him considering that the deal was reached so recently with the Sharks.  It really makes you wonder whether he felt ambushed by all of this.  Most importantly, the right hand shooting Setoguchi will be available immediately to help provide scoring and a willingness to shoot on a team that sorely needs both.  As Fletcher told the media after news of the Burns’ trade went down he was well aware the Wild were last in the league in shots on goal and one of the most offensively anemic teams over most of its franchise history and the addition of Setoguchi will certainly help rectify that to a certain degree.  I think its very reasonable to expect at least 22-30 goals from Setoguchi and around 50-60 points next season where his stats should improve as he’ll likely get far more ice time than he had in San Jose where he was used in more of a secondary role. 

Charlie Coyle 

Something else Chuck Fletcher revealed in his post-trade press conference was in his statement, “If Charlie Coyle wasn’t in this deal, it doesn’t get done” which gives you an idea of how bright the potential is for this East Weymouth, Massachusetts-native.  Coyle possesses NHL-ready size (6’2″, 207lbs), and is an excellent skater who does not hesitate to get involved physically and has strong two-way ability.  The current student athlete of Boston University is a power forward who had a strong freshman season for legendary college coach Jack Parker‘s squad with 7 goals and 26 points in 37 games.  He can shut opposing forwards down, and has the strength to take the puck to the crease even with defenseman attempting to stay with him.  He has great versatility and is comfortable playing both the power play and penalty kill and plays the game with a high hockey IQ.  You could even say it runs in the family as former NHL’ers Tony Amonte and Bobby Sheehan are his cousins.  Apart from playing well for the Terriers, Coyle has been impressive on the international stage, leading Team USA with 6 points at the U-20 World Junior Championships and impressing scouts with his strong all-around game.  It is for all of these skills and traits that made the Hockey News rate Charlie Coyle as the Sharks’ top prospect and #11 league wide in their most recent Future Watch issue.  Coyle was drafted 28th Overall in 2010 and he could very well be argued to now be the Wild’s top prospect or a very close 2nd to Mikael Granlund (who was rated #20 in that same Future Watch issue) but regardless he is a player with a ton of potential that any Wild fan should be excited about. 

The last piece the Wild acquired was the 28th Overall selection which it used to select center Zack Phillips.  Phillips (6’1″, 178lbs)  is a playmaking center who also has decent scoring ability especially near the crease.  He plays well along the boards and uses his body effectively to protect the puck in order to buy time to set up teammates much in the same way Andrew Brunette has done for the Wild.  Like Brunette, Phillips is not a great skater and by his own admission its a part of his game that will need work if he is to be effective at the NHL level.  He displays great on-ice vision, is an adept passer and seems to have that sense of where his teammates are on the ice at all times.  I am not really sold on Phillips as much as some are; mainly due to my concerns over his skating which is not that good even by junior hockey standards but he still managed to pile up 38 goals and 95 points which is pretty impressive, albeit while playing on a loaded team.  I think a Hockey News‘ scout said it best when he told them this about Phillips, “Everybody knocks his skating, but all he does is keep putting up points.”  Check it out for yourself, and you be the judge. 

Before you get too excited, I’d just like to remind you what you watched was a highlight video, and many of those goals and scoring plays you see came against some of the worst teams in the Quebec Major junior Hockey League but I digress. 

So is that all the Wild got?  Perhaps from a human standpoint that’s true but the Wild gained in some other areas as well.  Most importantly, cap space.  In the salary cap world that the NHL exists in, having space underneath the ceiling is very important.  In the bigger picture, cap space can sometimes be more valuable than fairly talented players; which was a huge reason why the Philadelphia Flyers parted ways with Jeff Carter and Mike Richards and their monstrous contracts (11 years at $5.2 million per season, and 10 years at $5.75 million per season).  They needed flexibility and luckily for them they were able to find a suitor which was willing to take on such huge contracts that will carry on until at least 2020.  The Wild were going to have to strongly consider giving Brent Burns a deal in excess of 6-7 million per season for a length of probably 7 years since its guaranteed money under the rules of the current collective bargaining agreement no matter if there is a lockout or not.  Minnesota, which was a team already fairly close to the cap ceiling would’ve had almost no flexibility left.  Why is that bad?  Simply put, as the Wild develops its young talent like Marco Scandella, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and others as they improve they’ll obviously want a raise from their Entry Level contracts and without flexibility you would be forced to let that young talent walk away.  The Wild’s best chances for success are not in the short-term, they’re a few years down the road so maintaining flexibility and not committing one’s self to another large, long-term contract fits that vision more appropriately than simply paying Burns whatever he was asking for.  Perhaps more understandably, it was a big reason how poor timing of the CBA effectively doomed the Minnesota Timberwolves to mediocrity as poor management but a ridiculous contract for the team’s franchise star Kevin Garnett prevented the organization from having the room to sign a quality supporting cast around him leaving them no option but to dump him off for players and draft picks.  The Wild would’ve been slightly better off, but they would’ve been a team with a handful of highly paid players that had a miserable group around them.  By dealing Burns and staying sensible with the contracts it offers it ensures it has the money to pay the raises the young talent deserves and thus keep the team good for many years instead of a brief flash of brilliance and then a fire sale afterwards. 

Currently, the Wild have 18 players under contract at a collective cost of $50,721,944 according to capgeek.com.  That roughly equates to $14 million to sign 5 more players to fill out the rest of its roster.  Minnesota goes into this summer with Chuck Kobasew, Antti Miettinen, Andrew Brunette, Josh Harding, Jose Theodore, Drew Bagnall, Jed Ortmeyer and John Madden as unrestricted free agents.  Out of that group, only Madden (although Michael Russo seems to doubt that after the Wild acquired Powe from Philly) and perhaps one of the goaltenders is likely to be re-signed.  Also, with Mike Yeo now as the team’s head coach I think one should consider the possibility of the team signing Drew Bagnall and / or Jed Ortmeyer to league-minimum deals since both served as loyal (and physical) foot soldiers for the Aeros all of last season.  Minnesota is also expected to buyout disappointing defenseman Cam Barker unless they can find someone willing to take him and his $3.25 million salary.  The team also has a large number of restricted free agents to consider including Justin Falk, Casey Wellman, Colton Gillies, Robbie Earl, Patrick O’Sullivan, Darroll Powe and James Sheppard.  I would only expect the Wild to tender offers to Falk, Wellman, Powe and Sheppard.  Sheppard, the former 1st round pick (9th Overall, 2006) went unpaid throughout a substantial portion of the season after blowing out his knee in an ATV accident.  With Sheppard still a RFA and the fact he’s missed more than 60 games in the last two seasons he can be signed to a 2-way contract and thus why the Wild will re-sign him and likely relegate him to the Aeros as he attempts to resurrect his career. Its a low-risk move, and if he can’t bring himself back to an NHL level you part ways with no reservations about giving up on him too early.  It is tough to say whether the team will look to fill holes internally or look to the free agency market to upgrade.  Late last season as the Wild’s post-season hopes were effectively dashed, the team brought up a lot of young players to give them mini-auditions and in many cases the young talent performed well.  With cap space, the team doesn’t have to fill out the roster completely on the cheap unless it wants to. 

What free agents are available that could help the Wild?  

Here is a listing of unrestricted free agents that are available (and that I believe can help the Wild) along with their most-recent cap hit according to capgeek.com. 

C – Brad Richards – $7.8 million
LW – Simon Gagne – $5.2 million
RW – Michael Ryder – $4 million
D – Joni Pitkanen – $4 million
D – James Wisniewski – $3.25 million
RW – Radim Vrbata – $3 million
D – Christian Ehrhoff – $3.1 million
C – Brooks Laich – $2.1 million
LW – Nikolai Zherdev – $2 million
LW – Pascal Dupuis – $1.4 million
LW – Tomas Kopecky – $1.2 million
C – Maxime Talbot – $1.05 million
LW – Raffi Torres – $1 million
D – Marc-Andre Bergeron – $1 million
LW – Ben Eager – $965,000
RW – Ville Leino – $800,000
RW – Patrick Eaves – $750,000
LW – Sean Bergenheim – $700,000
LW – Drew Miller – $650,000
D – Jonathan Ericsson – $900,000

I selected these specific free agents because of the direction I think the team is going in.  I think it wants to be a faster and younger team so I avoided all players over the age of 32; these were players that are all decent skaters, and either capable of being physical or supplying the team with some offense.  I fully realize that most of these players will be seeking raises, some more significant than others but there certainly is an opportunity to upgrade the roster if it wants to.  I am not advocating the Wild spend all the way to the ceiling but it can splurge at least on one or two of these UFA’s (depending on who they are and what they’re willing to play for) without completely eliminating its cushion underneath the salary ceiling. 

If the team wants to replace the scoring on the blueline lost in Brett Burns’ departure I’d perhaps recommend the cheap and affordable Marc-Andre Bergeron whose bullet-like shot from the point would likely yield the most bang for the buck.  Another option to replace Burns is James Wisniewski.  In some ways, Wisniewski is a poor-man’s Burns.  He has relatively good mobility and while he’s not as flashy he has a pretty good shot from the point and is comfortable playing the point on the power play or anchoring the penalty kill.  He’s also quite physical which is an element that is lacking on the Wild’s blueline.  Marco Scandella may be that player in the Wild’s future, but if they want a pretty good short-term fix than Wisniewski is a player you can put out there with a level of comfort knowing that he can handle those big minutes that Burns once had.  Another player I’d also consider luring; to bring back that element of mobile size along with a big shot is Jonathan Ericsson.  He has been caught up in a numbers game in Detroit and while I think they’d work hard to re-sign him, he’s a very athletically gifted player who I think capable of a lot more if given the opportunity, and if you’re Chuck Fletcher perhaps that’s how you lure him to the State of Hockey. 

Up front, affordable Top 6 six type fill in’s would be Ville Leino who had an excellent season with the Flyers last season, registering 53 points.  Leino will be looking for a considerable increase over the $800,000 he made last year, but he does have great skills and would be great on the power play.  Radim Vrbata and his 48 points is another option.  He is still a fairly elusive player and if he can be had for around his cap hit of last year ($3 million) he might be a nice component to give the team another sniper to work with its collection of playmakers. 

As I said before, if the team shouldn’t spend up all of its cushion but at least the Wild has options.  It is prime to be a very tough and competitive market for UFA’s as teams try to add the key components where they can as well as (for a few clubs) purchase players just to get to the salary floor.  The Wild may choose to go with youngsters to fill these positions but shouldn’t hurry their development just to save money either.  If they’re ready, give them a shot otherwise they should let them continue to improve in Houston.  No matter what, Chuck Fletcher has given us (Wild fans) plenty to talk about as we head into July! 

About Derek Felska

I am a lifelong hockey fan from Minnesota who loves and appreciates the game at all levels. I have been blogging about the Minnesota Wild since 2005. I cover just about every aspect of the organization from the team itself, its coaches, its management, its broadcast as well as its AHL affiliate the Iowa Wild and the club's pool of prospects. In addition to the NHL I occasionally time time to cover college and high school hockey as well. We are the State of Hockey and I want to make this blog informative and objective from the eyes of a fan. I am a fan of the Minnesota Wild, but I am no homer. I hope what you read reflects this approach!

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