The need for a top flight center and some fans' desire for a home-grown product on the roster was erased on Thursday night, when the Minnesota Wild signed the State of Hockey's own Matt Cullen
to a three-year contract.
Cullen was born in Virginia, took Moorhead to the state tournament three times and starred at St. Cloud State.
General Manager Chuck Fletcher didn't care about any of that when he signed the 33-year-old. He wanted a skilled center to play alongside the Wild's top offensive wingers like Martin Havlat, recently re-signed Guillaume Latendresse
, or perhaps Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen. He wanted a fast skater, good on draws and the ability to play the point on the power play. He also wanted a veteran presence that fits the type of character most welcome in the Wild locker room.
"I'm thrilled to be a part of the Wild," said Cullen. "I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I couldn't be happier."
The feeling is mutual for Fletcher.
"As everybody knows, we've been looking for a number two centerman for many seasons, I think for a time that predates my arrival here," said Fletcher. "With Matt Cullen
, not only do we get a number two center, but we get a player with a strong work ethic, good skill level and a lot of versatility."
He landed Cullen, Stanley Cup winner who has surpassed the 20-goal mark and posted 49 points in a season twice.
"Matt is a smart, hard-working versatile center that will improve our hockey team," said Fletcher. "We are a better team tonight than we were this morning."
Cullen's signing comes a day after it was learned that Guillaume Latendresse
would re-sign for two years, and the same day that enforcer Derek Boogaard became a New York Ranger.
He was the Wild's top priority when free agency started at 11:00 a.m. In fact, Fletcher said he might have been three seconds tardy in calling Cullen.
"He was the first call," admitted Fletcher. "He was our priority. He was a player we felt strongly about."
The new acquisition certainly appreciated the quick action by the Wild.
"As a player, it means a lot to be called first," Cullen said. "That meant a lot to me. Being able to talk to Chuck and Todd was really helpful to get a feel of their expectations and what they think of the team going forward. I'm excited to be a part of this team - a team on the rise."
Cullen, a 12-year veteran started last season with Carolina, where he won the Cup in 2006, and posted 40 points (12-28=40) in 60 games. He was then dealt to the Ottawa Senators, where he added four goals and four assists in eight games.
His best days in Ottawa came in the playoffs, when he notched three goals and five assists in a six-game first round playoff exit to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I don't think I've ever felt better on the ice, physically," he said. "The playoffs was probably the best hockey I've ever played."
His signing also comes just a week after he appeared at a Hockey Day Minnesota press conference in Moorhead where the four participating high school teams were revealed. Supporting the community is nothing new for Cullen, who along with his wife, Bridget, founded the Cullen Children’s Foundation
in 2003, providing financial resources to organizations that support children's healthcare needs, with an emphasis on cancer.
Fletcher's day didn't stop at signing Cullen. He also bolstered the front lines by signing left wing Eric Nystrom. He hinted that with those two signings, he might be close to done in free agency other than looking into one or two possible improvements.
"We like our hockey team," he said. "We have a lot of players we feel are going to bounce back and play to their norms."