The Wild’s about to lose one Minnesotan, but it will gain another.
Wild center Matt Cullen will become a free agent when the market opens at 11 a.m. CT Friday. The veteran had a conversation with Chuck Fletcher last night where the general manager informed him he could not extend a contract offer.
However, defenseman Keith Ballard, the Baudette native and former University of Minnesota star, has agreed to terms with the hometown Wild. Ballard, 30, was bought out of the final two years of his contract by the Vancouver Canucks this morning. It's a two-year, $3 million deal -- much less than the Tom Gilbert $4 million cap hit. The buyout is why Ballard could agree early. The signing won't be official until Friday.
"It is exciting in the sense that I’ve enjoyed playing here on a visiting team," said Ballard, saying he got interest from a half-dozen teams. "I love the building, I’ve got great memories playing here in the three years in college and playing in front of these fans. And I know the support that the team gets. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be nice to be closer to family and friends, but at the same time, this isn’t a big homecoming celebration.
"There’s a lot of work to be done to reestablish my career. It’s an important year for me. I’m not overly wrapped up in that side of it. I’m just focused on putting all my efforts into having a good year and helping the team do well."
Ballard, a left-shot D will play the right side in Minnesota. In 545 career games with Phoenix, Florida and Minnesota, the two-time Gophers national champ has scored 36 goals and 165 points.
In 193 games with the Wild, Cullen scored 33 goals and 101 points. He scored an additional 11 goals in the shootout.
Cullen is coming off a strong season, still has the legs of a 20-something and has won a Cup in Carolina. He has scored 202 goals and 562 points in 1,073 games in 15 seasons with Anaheim, Florida, Carolina, the Rangers, Ottawa and Minnesota.
The Wild never made Cullen an offer.
“Chuck said all along he wasn’t going to do that unless he could make a legitimate offer,” Cullen said. “That’s a pretty classy move. He called me last night and we talked a little while and he said it’s a tough call to make, but he just can’t find the room to make an offer. So that was it.
“It was a sad night in the Cullen household last night. We were pretty disappointed, but understanding of the situation.”
Cullen, the former Moorhead High standout and St. Cloud State Huskies center, said he leaves Minnesota with good memories.
“I really enjoyed my time there,” Cullen said. “It was more than I would have ever imagined as far as playing at home and raising my kids there and being part of the organization and watching the organization grow from where it was three years ago to where it is now. I just leave with a lot of positive memories. It was a great experience for me. It was a lot of fun. Obviously, I would have liked to have won more games, but last year was one of the most enjoyable seasons playing hockey, and to go on that note, not many guys play pro hockey in their home state.
“Now it’s time to move on.”
Cullen said he doesn’t know if he’ll sign exactly Friday, but there’s been “plenty of interest.”
“It’s kind of interesting because all along in the back of my mind I expected it would eventually work out with Minnesota,” Cullen said. “Now it’s a completely different mindset, and I took last night to regroup and gather my thoughts and emotions and start thinking about the future here.
“For me, the priority is going to a place where I have a chance to win along with the family situation.
“Chuck was great though. He could have made this a lot more difficult than he did, but I got the strong impression that he tried awful hard, but it’s just one of those things. It’s a tough cap situation.”
It’s unclear if the Wild will look for a No. 2 center in free agency or just hand the baton in camp to Charlie Coyle or Mikael Granlund.
As for Ballard, I talked to him earlier as you saw on the previous blog, and he said Minnesota is an option.
It's an option now.
“I did need a change, so to me, the buyout is a good thing,” Ballard said. “In my meetings at the end of the year with management in Vancouver, we all agreed that however it worked out, I needed a change. It’s a funny feeling. In a lot of ways I’m very excited, but it’s disappointing that it got to this. I’m so excited for the opportunity and what’s going to come this next season.
“There’ been so much adversity in Vancouver the last few years, and I’ve gone through a lot. If anything my belief in myself has gotten better. Not right away. There was some up and down there, but it’s a fact, I know I can play at a high level in a long time.”
On playing in Vancouver, Ballard said, "It was a battle to find the right fit. I had a few injuries. It was a different role than I was accustomed to. There were a lot of different situations that took place. There weren’t one or two things that went wrong. At the same time, I really, truly loved my time in Vancouver. The guys I played with, it was a great group. It’s bittersweet right now. I’m really excited to be moving on and getting a fresh start, but it’s hard leaving people you were close to and a city and a fan base that I really enjoyed playing in front of."
More from Star Tribune
More from Russo's Rants
The Wild's Stadium Series sweaters were unveiled today
Justin Fontaine, who has missed the past nine games with a sprained MCL, is practicing for the first time since being injured Oct. 30 against Chicago.
The Wild, who lost Zach Parise and the game last time it faced Nashville, fought James Neal and shut out the Predators in Saturday's rematch.
Parise has a doctor's appointment today.
Slash on Zucker 'hit a nerve' at the end of Thursday's game.