The decision to return home and continue his NHL career wasn't an easy one for Matt Cullen. But ultimately, it ended up being the right one.
Cullen, a Virginia, Minn. native and Moorhead resident, signed a one-year deal with the Wild on Wednesday worth $1 million with another $700,000 worth of incentives possible. The 40-year old Cullen has been a revelation for the Pittsburgh Penguins, helping them to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. With that in mind, it would have been understandable if Cullen decided to ride off into the sunset, his day with the Cup approaching later this month.
Instead, the former St. Cloud State Husky decided to try for a personal championship three-peat, this time with his hometown club.
"I was really pleased with how I felt in the playoffs and through the Finals, I was really happy with how my body responded to a couple weeks off after the season," Cullen said. "I think that was a big part of the reason why I felt I could play again."
After deciding that he could still play at a high level, Cullen needed to decide where that would take place.
He's developed a special relationship with Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford over the years, the same man who brought him to Carolina more than a decade ago. Ready to hang up the skates two summers ago after a two-year stint with the Nashville Predators, Rutherford called again, this time bringing Cullen to Pittsburgh.
Two Stanley Cups later, the decision to keep playing couldn't have worked out any better. But eventually, the draw of family -- specifically his wife Bridget and sons Brooks, 9, Wyatt, 7, and Joey, 6 -- won out over a return to western Pennsylvania.
"It's hard to say goodbye, but at age 40, 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," said Cullen. "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.
"It was not an easy decision; obviously, Minnesota is home and it's a special place for me. But everything we've gone through in Pittsburgh the last two years has been pretty special. It's a fantastic organization, and the friendships that you make along the way, it's not easy to say goodbye and it's not easy to walk away."
It will be Cullen's second stint with the Wild after playing three seasons in Minnesota between 2010 and 2013.
"He's still producing at a good clip," said Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher. "He's a player that brings versatility, you can move him around your lineup. He's an elite faceoff man and he seems to be defying father time because he's a great skater. He moves around the ice as well as anyone still. He'll bring a lot of elements to our club."
Cullen's final Wild campaign was the lockout-shortened 2013 season, the first of Minnesota's five straight trips to the postseason. Since his first departure, the Wild's expectations have been raised as it looks to try and advance past the second round of the playoffs for the second time in franchise history and first since 2003.
"The expectations are very high, and rightfully so. I think this is a group that has an awful lot of potential and huge upside. That's a big part of why I wanted to come and join it," Cullen said. "It's fun to see when the expectations are high, and I know that with that group the expectations are high, and that's the most important thing is that the group has those same expectations as everyone else."
Returning to the Wild will reunite Cullen with close friend Eric Staal, a former teammate with the Carolina Hurricanes. The two won a Stanley Cup together in 2006, but have remained in close contact over the years.
Staal was still learning his way around the League back then, while Cullen was a veteran in his ninth season. Now both are considered grizzled vets on a team that expects to be there at the end of the year.
"I'm excited to play along side him again, for sure," Staal said. "Playing with him that season, and watching what kind of professional he is, I'm not that surprised that he's still playing and still being a factor like he has been for Pittsburgh the last two years. He's a great athlete who's very mindful of how to treat his body and prepare the right way to show up every day and compete. I learned a lot from him."
In Cullen, the Wild is getting a valuable veteran piece it likely will install into its bottom six forward grouping. The speedy Cullen won 51.4 percent of his draws during the regular season last year, his lowest success rate in the faceoff circle in seven years. He was outstanding in that area during the playoffs, however, winning 56.4 percent of draws.
"We've got a guy who can take faceoffs, you can play him on the fourth line, you can play him against anybody," said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. "There's so many good things that he brings to the table along with three Stanley Cups."
In addition, Cullen has excelled both on the power play and on the penalty kill through the years and has skated in 123 career postseason games.
"I'm able to move around the lineup to help wherever you need based on different scenarios and situations. That's what comes with playing for a long time," Cullen said. "I'm pretty versatile as far as where I can fit in a lineup. I'm comfortable playing wherever the coach asks me to. I look at [Minnesota's] lineup, and there's an awful lot of good forwards."
After the departure of centerman Erik Haula to Las Vegas earlier this summer, Cullen's addition gives coach Bruce Boudreau options. With Staal and Mikko Koivu already on the roster, and Cullen anchoring the fourth line, Boudreau has added depth down the middle. Charlie Coyle and Joel Eriksson Ek are expected to compete for the other center spot during training camp, with either one also able to play wing.
Luke Kunin could also be in the mix at center when camp begins. Regardless of how it shakes out, the Wild has options.
"It definitely sets ourselves up to look like a nice unit once we start training camp," Staal said. "I think for Bruce and his staff, it just gives them another veteran guy with the ability to play in a bunch of different areas. I think it gives our forward group some more balance and some more options. Good teams have that, and when you can add a player like Matt, it's really beneficial."