MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher took all of three seconds—by his estimate—to call Matt Cullen after NHL free agency began at 11 a.m. local time.
By Thursday evening, the Wild and Cullen had a deal that gives the team a versatile, hardworking veteran centre and gives the Minnesota native a three-year contract to play in his home state.
“He was our first priority today, and we’re very fortunate and thrilled to have signed Matt,” Fletcher said.
Cullen, who won the Stanley Cup in 2006 with Carolina, sure appreciated the interest.
“I’ve got a smile on my face that I can’t wipe off,” he said, during a conference call with Fletcher and reporters.
The Wild were active on the first official day of the 2010-11 season, re-signing left-wing Guillaume Latendresse (two years for US$5 million) and signing left-wing Eric Nystrom (three years for $4.2 million, according to the Star Tribune of Minneapolis) while watching tough-guy left-wing Derek Boogaard sign with the New York Rangers (four years, $6.5 million).
The 33-year-old Cullen, who played at Moorhead High School and St. Cloud State University and keeps a home in Fargo, N.D., finished last season with Ottawa. This is the sixth NHL team for the six-foot-one, 200-pound Cullen, who has 169 goals and 292 assists in 880 games.
He wasn’t worried about the higher hopes that can come from fans when there’s a locally raised player to root for. Mark Parrish, a college teammate of Cullen’s who grew up in Bloomington, signed a five-year contract in 2006, the longest in team history, but he had trouble finding a comfort zone and was bought out after just two seasons.
“I know that there’ll be expectations and a little added pressure from outside sources, but that’s just going to kind of add to the excitement and challenge of it,” Cullen said.
Last season, Cullen had 16 goals and 32 assists in 81 games. Traded in February from the Hurricanes to the Senators, Cullen added three goals and five assists in six playoff games.
“Probably the best hockey I’ve ever played,” he said, confidently declaring he’s headed into his best years: “I don’t think I’ve ever felt better on the ice, physically.”
Cullen’s contract is worth $10.5 million, for $3.5 million each season. He won 51 per cent of his faceoffs last season and will give the Wild a clear upgrade at a position of need, as the long-sought No. 2 centre behind captain Mikko Koivu. Cullen can play on special teams—he had a pair of power-play goals in the playoffs for Ottawa—or slide over to the wing, if necessary.
“With Matt and assuming Pierre-Marc Bouchard can regain his health and his prior form, which we’re confident will happen sometime this season, we’re a pretty good hockey team,” Fletcher said. “We’re a little bit better than people think we are.”
After an inconsistent first season with Fletcher and head coach Todd Richards in charge that saw the Wild finish third-to-last in the Western Conference, Fletcher was determined to enhance the chemistry of the roster.
“We needed to improve the character of our group, the work ethic of our group, the leadership in the room,” Fletcher said, “and we feel very strongly we’ve done that.”
Cullen echoed that sentiment.
“That excites me as much as anything because I don’t think you can win without a good character group,” Cullen said.
Nystrom fits into that, too, as does recently acquired right wing Brad Staubitz.
“Our goal is to be an organization that’s respected as a good place to play,” Fletcher said, “a place you can go and win games and that has a discernible identity with regard to character and work ethic.”
The 27-year-old Nystrom had a career-high 11 goals and eight assists with 117 hits in 82 games for Calgary last season. The son of former NHL player Bob Nystrom, he played at the University of Michigan and was drafted by the Flames in the first round (10th overall) in 2002.