ST. PAUL – The moment Mike Babcock learned the San Jose Sharks had acquired defenseman Brent Burns, he instantly got the look of a guy who’s team just let one get away.
His Red Wings are looking for a defenseman to replace the retired Brian Rafalski, but it was the playoff rival Sharks who pried the talented Burns away from the Minnesota Wild in a blockbuster trade.
“They just hit a home run,” Babcock said of the Sharks. “That’s a gold medal pick. I’m pissed off.”
Babcock figures his team’s chances of getting by the Sharks in the Western Conference playoffs just got that much more difficult and that’s exactly what the Sharks want to hear. They also know their window for challenging for a Stanley Cup is almost as gaping as the hole in their playoff resume.
And just a day after the Philadelphia Flyers stuck their necks out by trading two players who not long ago were considered the cornerstone of their foundation, the Sharks made a high-risk, high-reward move of their own by acquiring Burns. There is no denying Burns’ skill level, but the fact the Sharks dealt a 20-30 goal man, a decent prospect and a first round pick (which the Wild used to select Zach Phillips from the Saint John Sea Dogs) in exchange for a player who has had concussion problems and is due to become an unrestricted free agent after next season indicates the Sharks realize not winning the conference final is becoming more and more unacceptable for a franchise that has done so much in the regular season.
“We’re right in what we think is our wheelhouse, our window with our team,” said Sharks GM Doug Wilson. “A guy like this doesn’t come around often and we had to be aggressive to get him. We’ve been back-to-back years in the final four and we’re not satisfied. We felt this makes us a better team today.”
Stud defensemen certainly don’t come along very often and if Wilson is to be believed, you have to strike quickly when they do. Wilson had just signed Setoguchi to a three-year deal worth $9 million Thursday and said the trade only became available on the draft floor. (Really? A team like Minnesota just all of a sudden decides after six years it doesn’t need Brent Burns anymore and decides to deal him?)
“It’s not an easy decision to trade Brent Burns,” said Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, “and it’s not something I set out to do a couple of weeks ago. But I did set out to add a lot of assets. Over the past few drafts, we’ve added a lot of players.”
Whether the Wild use that to aggressively pursue roster players who will help them now or wait on their young talent and build through drafting and developing remains to be seen. But there aren’t many organizations in the league that have spun their wheels in the mud of mediocrity for longer than the Wild. The Wild has been stuck in that no man’s land of basically never being good enough to make the playoffs nor bad enough to parlay their lack of success into a stud at the draft.
“(The Sharks) are trying to win the Stanley Cup next year,” Fletcher said, “and it’s not that we’re not, but we need assets to be competitive with those teams. For two years we’ve been in the same place. I see the path and I believe our fans see the path now.”
As good as Burns is, the fact the Wild were willing to part with him indicates they didn’t view him as a commodity they wanted to spend wildly on when he hits unrestricted free agency. There have been the concussion and anxiety issues and while he does show flashes of brilliance, he can be a very up-and-down player who sometimes has trouble processing the game. That likely won’t stop someone in the NHL from offering him Brent Seabrook/Dustin Byfuglien type of money and term, something the Wild were clearly not prepared to pay.
“I don’t think he has reached his potential or come near it,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said of Burns. “And I say that from both ends of the rink. He could still be better defensively and better offensively. It’s exciting to have him and I think he’ll be excited about having a fresh start.”
And probably fittingly, they get a player with some warts in Setoguchi, who has a ton of speed and skill, but never seems to be able to produce the sum of his parts. But given first-line minutes and lots of power play opportunities that he didn’t get in San Jose might prove to be what he needs at this stage of his career.
There were other deals of consequence, most notably John-Michael Liles going to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ryan Smyth going back to Edmonton and Troy Brouwer being moved to the Washington Capitals.
And while it has yet to be announced, the Florida Panthers are on the verge of picking up defenseman Bryan Campbell and his $7.14 million cap hit for the next five years from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Rostislav Olesz. Campbell’s cap hit will help direct the Panthers up to the salary floor of $48 million for next season.
That’s messed up. But that’s what you get when you respond to having the players over a barrel by agreeing to a collective bargaining agreement that (a) ties salaries to revenues; and (b) insists on having a salary cap floor that doesn’t fit the business model of almost half the teams in the league.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.