Anatomy of the trade that sent Erik Haula and Alex Tuch from the Wild to Vegas

By Michael Russo 13 hours ago

Much of the offseason fun for Wild fans and reporters was trying to piece together which player the Wild could potentially lose to the Vegas Golden Knights in the first expansion draft since the Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets took part in one in the year 2000.

There were months of speculation leading into June, then days more once it was revealed players like Matt Dumba, Eric Staal, Marco Scandella and Erik Haula were exposed in lieu of core pieces like Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin.

In exchange for 1/30th of a $500 million expansion fee — or $16.7 million, the Wild would be forced to lose one good player.

As it turned out, the Wild would lose two.

Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center, the first-ever Wild-Golden Knights game will take place. On the other side will be two familiar faces skating on, if Wednesday’s Vegas practice was any indication, the same line with James Neal — Haula at center and 2014 Wild first-round pick Alex Tuch at right wing.

“It’ll be a little weird being in that visiting room, and hopefully the fans don’t boo me,” Tuch said during a phone interview Monday. “Actually I’ve gotten a lot of tweets from fans telling me they were disappointed I was traded. I had great relationships with management and the player development people like Brad Bombardir. It was a hard goodbye, but I was excited to start the next chapter.”

During a Tuesday night phone interview, Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee took The Athletic through the anatomy of the deal.

“We probably talked to (Wild GM) Chuck (Fletcher) more than anyone else,” McPhee said. “We had identified nine organizations that we thought had to make a deal to protect the organization. We thought Chuck was masterful through that process. He stayed calm and played his cards right, and he took us right down to the wire and protected his organization.

“They were one of nine organizations that we thought were victims of their own success. They had drafted well, they had traded well, they had developed well, they had good teams and good players coming, and for the $17 million we were going to give them, they were going to lose a good player. Of the nine teams, eight teams made deals and did what was right for their organization.”

McPhee said there were a lot of discussions about a lot of different players for months with Fletcher, and “a couple different transactions had to be brought together in the final days to make the whole thing work.”

Fletcher’s objective heading into the expansion draft was to create cap space while also shielding any of his defensemen from being selected so he could trade one and come back with a quality top-four this season.

Haula told The Athletic in September that the process for him actually began at his exit meeting following the Wild’s five-game first-round playoff exit in April.

Alex Tuch

Alex Tuch was the Wild’s first-round pick in 2014. He went to the Golden Knights as part of the Erik Haula deal. (Credits: Brace Hemmelgarn and Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports)

“I met with Chuck and (coach) Bruce (Boudreau), and I appreciated Chuck’s honesty,” Haula said. “He told me I most likely wouldn’t be back, so I knew I’d either be picked up or traded or something would happen. He said, ‘I just want to prepare you,’ so I appreciated that because Minnesota was home for me.”

In late May at the draft combine in Buffalo, Fletcher briefly met with Haula’s agent, Jay Grossman, and that’s where it was first broached with Grossman that Fletcher had been talking to McPhee about potentially drafting Haula and then immediately signing the pending restricted free agent.

Haula spent most of last season playing on the fourth line in Minnesota and he was a year from unrestricted free agency, so with the Wild’s cap situation, it was going to be difficult for the Wild to sign him long-term.

The Golden Knights scouted the Wild a lot last season and were interested in taking Haula over a defenseman as long as the Wild traded them a prospect. The names talked about, sources say, were Tuch, Jordan Greenway and Kirill Kaprizov.

“There were some teams that had exposure stress and some teams that had cap stress and some teams that had both, and Minnesota was going to have to make some moves,” McPhee said. “And we liked Erik. We thought Erik was a competitive guy who brought some speed. But the terms of most of these deals were dictated by the teams, not by us.”

The Golden Knights reached out to Grossman immediately at the outset of the special Vegas contact period for free agents and indicated Haula was top priority. He ultimately agreed to sign a three-year, $8.25 million contract.

Still, Haula, who was vacationing in Europe at the time, didn’t know if the deal would be consummated because the Wild had not yet agreed to trade them Tuch.

“Once we got to the number, I still wasn’t able to relax until I knew Chuck made the deal,” Haula said. “Once he did, it was surreal. I had been in Minnesota since high school (at Shattuck-St. Mary’s) and college (at the University of Minnesota), and the support of the fans was amazing. And my teammates. I can’t think of one guy that didn’t text me or call me, which was important to me too because it feels like I did do some good things.”

Haula, an avid golfer with a 4-handicap, bought a house on TPC Las Vegas. The 26-year-old Finn needed a fresh start after scoring a career-high 15 goals last season but only averaging 13 minutes, 48 seconds a game. He’s averaging nearly three minutes a game more this season and is Vegas’ sixth-leading scorer with 13 points (seven goals) in 19 games after scoring 42 goals and 89 points in 266 career games for the Wild.

Tuch, 21, the former Boston College product, was back home in New York on the morning of the expansion draft when he discovered he’d be traded later that night.

“Well, Russo, I can thank you for that,” Tuch told The Athletic, laughing. “You were the first to write about it, so thank you for keeping me in the loop because I didn’t know about it until you wrote I was going to be traded.

“I was actually in the weight room working out with a bunch of my buddies at home and right when I walked in, my buddy pulled up Twitter and said, ‘Hey man, you’re getting traded today.’ I just laughed and then he showed me your tweet and story. I called my agent, and he was like, ‘Yeahhhh, it’s a pretty big rumor, let me call the Wild.’ And Chuck Fletcher called me right after and told me your story was true, that I was getting traded and it was actually a really good phone call.

“He said, ‘Hey, my hands are tied,’ they didn’t want to give me up, that it wasn’t like they were looking to ship me out, they said. So it was a really good phone call. It was a tough phone call. It’s always tough to get traded because I know there were other options, and I don’t know, maybe Vegas pushed hard for me.”

Asked what he liked about Tuch, McPhee said, “We thought he was a big guy that could be good in front of the net and had good wheels. I had seen him at the (U.S.) program in Ann Arbor the one year and didn’t mind the way he played at all and thought for sure he would be an NHL player. Not sure where the ceiling is, but he certainly has attributes that could make him a very effective player if he puts his mind to it.”

Tuch, after a solid start, has five goals and five assists in 19 games for the Golden Knights. He recently received word from the team that he could move out of a hotel and into an apartment. He’s living with Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore.

“It’s been an unbelievable experience,” Tuch said of playing in Sin City. “I was actually very surprised how hockey-educated all the fans were. They know exactly what’s going on. It’s not just a blind following. It’s a bunch of knowledgeable people from all over the country, so we have hockey fans from all over the place, and people jumped right on board. You can ask other teams. It’s been an unbelievable atmosphere at all of our games. It’s been a growing experience, too. It’s really showed me what the NHL is all about and given me a really good opportunity to be a full-time NHLer here. I’ve been really grateful for it. It’s a really special city, it’s unlike any other city in the world.”

The Golden Knights have been the biggest surprise in the NHL. They lead the Pacific Division with a 15-7-1 record and have been especially stellar at home, where they’re 9-2.

Tuch says he’s a little surprised how good they’ve been, “but when you look at our roster, we’ve got a lot of guys that have been 20-, 30-goal scorers and a lot of guys that might not have had their best years in the past and have come out of the woodwork and are really stepping up. I think everyone’s really bought into the system and we really like our coaching staff. (Gerard Gallant’s) done an amazing job. They went out and wanted to build a team for the future, and right now we’re doing pretty well.”

Tuch says there’s something to the fact the Golden Knights are a team full of castoffs with something to prove.

“Everyone’s got this little chip on their shoulder, especially when you go and play against your old team,” Tuch said. “Shea Theodore was really excited to get a win over Anaheim, and that’s how I’m going to be going into Minnesota. I’ll be trying to win a hockey game like any other day, but if we can come out with a win, it’s going to feel even better. We joke about it here. Guys say, ‘Hey, they didn’t want you, show them they made a mistake.’”

There’s no doubt Haula will be motivated to play the Wild.

“I’ve got to believe Erik Haula might put some money on the board tomorrow,” Boudreau joked.

(Top image: Erik Haula, with the Wild last season and the Golden Knights in 2017. Credits: Brace Hemmelgarn and Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports)