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Published July 01, 2010, 12:00 AM

Cullen would be good fit for Minnesota Wild

MINNEAPOLIS – Perhaps three times will be a charm for the Wild and Matt Cullen.

By: Michael Russo / Minneapolis Star Tribune , INFORUM

MINNEAPOLIS – Perhaps three times will be a charm for the Wild and Matt Cullen.

For the third time in Cullen’s career, he will become a free agent this morning. For the third time in Cullen’s career, the Wild – in need of a center – is expected to pursue him.

The Wild couldn’t lasso him the previous two times, but the team might have a better chance this go-around.

“To be honest, at the point I was at four years ago, I don’t think I could have handled playing in Minnesota,” said Cullen, a former St. Cloud State standout who played in three consecutive boys’ hockey state tournaments with Moorhead in the ’90s. “But just growing and maturing as a person and a player, to the point of having a young family now, I think I’m at a good spot where I can handle it and excel there.”

“Definitely every guy from Minnesota thinks about playing for his hometown, home-state team. It’s something I’m very interested in. But at the same time, I understand a lot of things would have to fall into place and a lot of different pieces would have to fall into place. But Minnesota is a very appealing team for me.”

Still, it’s not a guarantee the Wild can sign, seal and deliver him.

Cullen, who previously signed as a free agent with Carolina (2004) and the Rangers (2006), should be of interest to a number of teams.

But Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher must also be cautious with how much money and particularly years he commits on the free-agent market. He hopes Mikko Koivu can be signed to a long-term extension, that Pierre-Marc Bouchard can return from a concussion and that first-round pick Mikael Granlund can join the Wild next year.

So while Cullen might have options, the Wild might also court other centers looking for shorter-term deals such as Olli Jokinen, Vaclav Prospal, Manny Malhotra, and possibly Saku Koivu, if the Wild captain’s brother has a change of heart and suddenly wants to play with his kid bro.

The Wild is likely to sign one defenseman during the free agency period. While the team is expected to seek a modestly priced blueliner, it might inquire about Minneapolis resident and former Gopher Paul Martin.

Martin, 29, who had 163 points in 400 games with the Devils, is a high-end, puck-moving, smart defenseman. But he also could command $5 million a year and will entertain several suitors.

If the Wild takes a crack at Martin and actually lands him, the signing would almost certainly have to accompany an eventual trade.

The Wild has $14.1 million of salary-cap space invested into Marek Zidlicky, Brent Burns, Nick Schultz and Cam Barker. Zidlicky has a no-trade clause. Fletcher has talked to several teams about his defensemen, including Boston, New Jersey and Anaheim.

But the bigger priority is at center. At 33, Cullen – who has scored 169 goals and 461 points in 880 games – is a strong-skating, two-way center. He’s a quality penalty killer, can win faceoffs, contribute on the scoresheet (averaging 46 points the past five seasons) and play the point on the power play.

He would also bring 63 games of playoff experience and a 2006 Stanley Cup on his resume with the Hurricanes.

The Wild’s up-tempo system also appeals to him. It’s a similar system to the one Peter Laviolette deployed when he coached Cullen with the Hurricanes, so Cullen said, “It comes kind of natural to me because I like to skate.”

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