Minnesota native Matt Cullen has decided to return to his hometown team on a one-year, $1 million contract. The signing makes the Minnesota Wild serious contenders.
To many, the Minnesota Wild were already contenders regardless of what happened this offseason. After finishing second in the Western Conference with 106 points last season, the Wild clearly have a talented roster capable of winning games. While the offseason has brought change, the roster still looks capable of being one of the top teams in the NHL, a contender in the West.
Yet, the Wild’s achilles heal has been the playoffs. In five straight appearances, they have made it as far as the conference semifinals. In the last two, they were eliminated after the first round, including a tremendously disappointing 4-1 series lost to the St. Louis Blues last season.
Given last season’s regular season success, change was needed to get the Wild over the hump. So far, they have taken that to heart.
First, they packaged Erik Haula and Alex Tuch to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. Next, they traded Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville for Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno. After that, they signed restricted free agents Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund to extensions. Now, they have made a move that brings them to a new level, signing 19-year veteran center Matt Cullen to a one-year contract.
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The Minnesota native may turn 41 in November, but he has stayed consistent over the years. Since leaving the Wild in 2013 after a three-year stint, the savvy veteran has point totals of 39, 25, 32 and 31. He’s also maintained a faceoff percentage of above 50 percent since 2003-04, including leading the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins with a 56.4 percentage in the playoffs among centers. Essentially, he’s been as reliable as they come.
At this point of his career, arguably the most impressive part of his game is his skating ability. The 40-year old showed it on full display in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs with Pittsburgh. Cullen’s highlight was a short-handed goal against the Washington Capitals, where he turned on the jets to get around defenseman Kirk Shattenkirk and bury a goal on the break away.
Now a member of the Wild, Cullen brings the team a much-needed center that can play on every line and on the penalty kill. Likely to spend a majority of his time on the third and fourth lines, the Wild can feel good about putting the trustworthy veteran on the ice against anyone.
Head coach Bruce Boudreau also tends to shorten the bench late in games, so having Cullen step in at center for someone like Charlie Coyle or Joel Eriksson Ek is an asset. That way, Coyle and Eriksson Ek can play the wing and focus on scoring rather than also focusing on the defensive responsibilities that come with the center position.
Maybe the largest asset Cullen brings to the team is the playoff success he’s had in his career. Coming off two Stanley Cups with the Penguins, Cullen knows what it takes to win it all. He even won another cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 along with Wild center Eric Staal. With a young Wild roster, he provides a great veteran presence to a group that has struggled in the playoffs.
Ultimately, Cullen gives this team a legitimate presence in the back of the lineup, providing flexibility to do whatever is asked of him. Without him, the Wild would have likely had Coyle and Eriksson Ek step into significant roles at center, so adding Cullen should take pressure off of those players. Along with Mikko Koivu and Staal, the Wild has a solid group of veterans manning a position that has the most responsibilities on the ice. Something Boudreau should feel very good about.
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In my mind, this equates to a team that is ready to take the next step. Center was the last spot in need of depth and the Wild added the best man left on the market. Unquestionably, expectations need to be high for next season’s squad, meaning they should take the next step in the playoffs, whether that’s the conference finals or a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
If the Wild can’t take that next step in the playoffs though, that may be a sign that it’s time to blow up this team. In the meantime, I’m optimistic that the moves they’ve made are enough to make this team serious contenders to not only make noise in the regular season, but the playoffs as well.
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