NHL: A Wild ride home, Moorhead's Matt Cullen signs 3-year, $10.5M deal with Minnesota
Matt Cullen is coming home.
The 33-year-old veteran National Hockey League center from Moorhead signed a 3-year, $10.5 million deal on Thursday to play with the Minnesota Wild.
"I really see a good core and I see a great goaltender," Cullen said of the Wild and Niklas Backstrom. "I see a team that is a step away from being a contender. I think this team is headed in the right direction. You couldn't ask for a better situation as a player. Not many players get this opportunity. I just understand how blessed I am."
Cullen gives his home-state Wild a savvy two-way player with a reputation for doing just about everything well.
The former St. Cloud State standout finished with 48 points in 81 games for the Carolina Hurricanes and Ottawa Senators last season.
A second-round draft pick of Anaheim in 1996, Cullen has been a model of consistency the last five years. He's averaged 46 points a season over that span, with a career-high 49 points for Carolina in 2005-06 and 2007-08.
The Wild finished fourth in the Western Conference's Northwest Division this year with a 38-36-8 record.
"I went into free agency with an open mind," Cullen said. "I knew Minnesota was a possibility, but I really wanted to be smart about how I approached it. ... I didn't just go here because it's Minnesota. I came here because it's a good opportunity for me and a good opportunity to win."
Cullen, who said there were as many as 10 teams interested in him this offseason, earned fan-favorite status in Carolina while helping Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup in 2005-06.
He signed as a free agent with the New York Rangers the following year, but was traded back to Carolina in 2007.
Cullen was dealt to Ottawa for the playoff push this season.
He had just four goals and four assists in 21 games during the regular season. However, Cullen was a force for the Senators in the postseason.
He tied with Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson atop the team scoring chart with eight points in six games.
The Senators were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs.
The Wild has made two previous attempts to lure Cullen back to Minnesota.
But Cullen said it was never the right fit.
"It was a combination of things," he said. "I was still relatively young in my career the first time. The second time it just didn't seem to be the right fit after we just won the Stanley Cup. But you look back on those times and think about what might have been."
Cullen has 169 goals in 880 career games in his 12-year career. He's joining his sixth NHL team.
Cullen said the chance to raise his three young sons in Minnesota, and the opportunity to be close to family and friends, played a part in the decision.
But it wasn't everything.
"When you are looking at what they said they were looking for all along, I fit the bill," Cullen said. "Hopefully, we can win a lot of games."
Former Moorhead High and University of North Dakota standout defenseman Brian Lee teamed with Cullen for a short time in Ottawa last season.
Lee, who grew up with Cullen as his hockey idol, said Thursday that he wishes Cullen well in Minnesota.
"It's tough to watch him go," Lee said. "He's a great player and an even better guy. It was a real dream come true to play with him. ... He can kind of do it all and do it at a high level. It's tough to lose a player like that."