Matt Cullen could have easily called it a career at age 40 after winning consecutive Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
That’s what he and everyone around him expected him to do, but his body bounced back strongly enough this summer from the post-season grind that he believed he could continue for another year.
After pondering a return to Pittsburgh, Cullen determined that there was only one place to justify returning for a 21st season in the NHL.
Home in Minnesota, where the former St. Cloud State star’s three sons can come to the rink and see him every night.
"It’s time to let the kids plant some roots and settle down at home because, as you go through a long career, the kids give up a lot in order to allow you to play," Cullen said. "At a certain point here, it becomes more important to be fair to them, too. It’s a great scenario that I can continue to play in the NHL and be home. It’s an organization I’m really comfortable with and happy to be a part of."
The Wild and Cullen agreed Wednesday to a one-year, $1 million contract that contains $700,000 in potential performance bonuses. Cullen already had a three-season stint from 2010-13 with the Wild, who were more than willing to wait for a gritty, savvy centre to play on the third or fourth line. After losing Erik Haula in the expansion draft, they had an opening behind Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu for an experienced man in the middle. Cullen could allow Charlie Coyle to remain at right wing.
"I look at that lineup, and there’s an awful lot of good forwards," Cullen said on a conference call with reporters. "Last year I thought that Minnesota was the best team in the West that we faced during the regular season."
After finishing in second place in the conference, the Wild were beaten in five games in the first round of the playoffs by the St. Louis Blues.
"That hunger is such a good element to have on your team, that desire to prove how good you can be," Cullen said.
Cullen, who will turn 41 on Nov. 2, had 13 goals and 18 assists in 72 games in 2016-17 for the Penguins while averaging 13:55 in ice time per game and winning 51.2 per cent of faceoffs. He had two goals and seven assists in 25 playoff games, winning 56.4 per cent of his draws.
He has played in 1,366 career regular season games, the sixth-most among active players. The Wild are his eighth NHL team. That includes the Carolina Hurricanes, where he won his first Stanley Cup in 2006 with then-and-now-teammate Staal. Cullen has 18 goals and 38 assists in 123 playoff games.
That includes a whopping 49 post-season games with the Penguins, who twice persuaded him to put off retirement following a two-year run with the Nashville Predators. Cullen will be forever indebted to Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, who also acquired Cullen with the Hurricanes.
"That was part of what made the decision so difficult, having to say goodbye to Jim and everything that he’s done for me," Cullen said.
This season, Cullen won’t have to say goodbye as much to his boys Brooks, Wyatt and Joey and his wife Bridget. Though the family’s home is Moorhead, about a 3 1/2-hour drive northwest from the Wild’s arena in St. Paul, the Cullens will have a constant presence at Xcel Energy Center this season.
"I know that every day they’re at a game is the best day of their life," Cullen said, adding: "I don’t want to play if they can’t be there."
August 16, 2017