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Cullen’s Minnesota homecoming has potential to pay off for Wild

Matt Cullen signed a one-year, $1-million contract to return to Minnesota and the deal can pay dividends for the Wild given the veteran center's playoff prowess.

Matt Cullen had options this off-season. After winning consecutive Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, the 40-year-old could have skated off into the sunset a three-time champion. He could have signed on with the Penguins once again, attempt to make it a three-peat and accomplish a dynasty the likes of which hasn’t been done since the 1980s. Or, Cullen, who has played nearly 1,400 games in the NHL, could sign with the Minnesota Wild and end his career in the same state he took his first strides.

On Wednesday, Cullen chose the latter, signing a one-year, $1-million deal with the Wild.

The decision was one based primarily on family, Cullen said, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Michael Russo. Cullen had spent his entire career jetting around the NHL, playing for eight different teams over his 19 seasons in the league, and this was a chance to spend what is likely the last big-league campaign he’ll ever play in Minnesota, where he played his high school and college hockey. By coming to the Wild, with whom he had previously played three seasons, Cullen said his three son can watch him play at home and put down their own roots in Minnesota.

But that’s not to say it doesn’t also give Cullen the chance to continue his winning ways. Speaking about the on-ice aspects of joining the Wild, Cullen said the Wild were “the best team in the West” that the Penguins had to play during the 2016-17 campaign, and he thinks the group has a lot of promise and a lot to prove after last season’s first-round playoff exit.

“It’s going to be a really hungry group to win,” Cullen said, according to Russo. “And I think that last season probably left a sour taste for a lot of guys [in the playoffs].”

And isn’t Cullen the perfect player to help this team wash that taste out of their mouths?

Let’s make this much clear: Cullen isn’t coming in to inject 20 goals into the Wild lineup. He’s not here to play in the top six. He won’t skate on the top power play unit, might not even see action as a top penalty killer and probably won’t see the ice for more than 14 minutes per night. Truthfully, you could make a long list of things Cullen won’t be doing for the Wild this coming campaign, but it’s what he will be doing that matters most.

Imagine, if you will, the Minnesota lineup this coming season without Cullen. On the left wing, the Wild are set with the likes of Zach Parise, Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter filling the top three spots. All three are complemented, almost perfectly, by Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Tyler Ennis on the right side. And down the middle, the Wild have a top-line guy in Mikko Koivu, a stellar second option in Eric Staal and a promising rookie in Joel Eriksson-Ek. But what they have added in Cullen is a safety net in their bottom six and the depth down the middle of a potential Stanley Cup contending team.

And for these Wild, depth is going to be the key. While Eriksson-Ek has oodles of potential, the 20-year-old has only played 18 big-league games between the regular season and playoffs, and he barely saw the ice in those contests. Getting him in as a third-line center makes all the sense in the world, but if he needs some time to build up to the role, putting Cullen in the third spot to start the season is absolutely an option. In addition, Cullen can bring some additional offensive support down the middle should Eric Staal, who had a resurgent 28-goal, 65-point season, come back down to earth a touch in 2017-18, and the veteran pivot also has potential to bump up the lineup should Minnesota be in need of an injury replacement. 

It’s not as if Cullen can’t provide offensively, either. Over his past two seasons, Cullen has chipped in 29 goals and 63 points in 154 games, including five goals and eight points shorthanded. So, with everything Cullen can provide, you could say he is, in a sense, Minnesota’s Swiss Army Knife, and a player of that ilk can go a long way over the course of an 82-game season.

There’s no doubt, however, that where Cullen’s play will matter most is the post-season. Unlike a number of bottom-six players who see their ice time and responsibility decrease in the playoffs, Cullen is the rare breed whose importance is at its peak come April, May and June. 

Cullen is as responsible defensively as anyone the Wild could have signed at this point in the summer and his faceoff mastery is something coaches crave in high-pressure, own-zone, late-game situations. He’s the perfect player to throw over the boards in a two-center situation, he’s likely a go-to over Eriksson-Ek if the top-six needs a break on a defensive-zone draw and Cullen has proven he can still provide a big goal or clutch play here or there. During the Penguins’ two Cup runs, Cullen scored six goals and 17 points in 49 games.

Minnesota had the best regular season in franchise history in 2016-17, but it was all for naught when the first round ended with the Wild on the outside of the playoff picture, and this season is about turning that around. Cullen may not be a marquee signing, a player that absolutely puts this team over the top, but if the Wild wanted to take another step forward, bringing him in to anchor the bottom-six can help make that a reality.

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