While the Wild won’t be a “major player” when free agency opens at 11 a.m. Saturday, the team plans to pursue a center who could play on the third or fourth line, a third-pair defenseman and a bunch of depth forwards and defensemen that can replace players recently dealt or cut loose.
Even though it may be hard for some to believe, one center the Wild has expressed interest in is former Wild and three-time Stanley Cup champion Matt Cullen.
According to a person familiar with Cullen’s thinking, Cullen is intrigued by the thought of returning to the Wild for a 20th NHL season but was spending Friday at his lake home with his wife and kids contemplating if he wants to continue playing. If General Manager Chuck Fletcher wants to pull the trigger on a Cullen contract Saturday, Cullen knows he’d likely need to make a quick decision.
Cullen, who turns 41 in November and played for the Wild from 2010-13, is fresh off his second consecutive Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh and was leaning toward “going out on top” a few weeks ago.
While he proved in the clinching Game 6 that he very much can still play — Cullen topped 19 minutes, won key draws and was on the ice for the winning goal, Cullen’s wife, Bridget, is getting homesick for Minnesota and the family wants to get their three children, who have been home-schooled the past two years in Pittsburgh, into a regular routine.
That could happen if the Moorhead resident moved back to Minnesota to play.
However, according to the source, Cullen was thinking heavily if he could mentally endure another 82-game grind after playing 202 games the past two seasons and 1,489 combined regular-season and playoff games in his career.
Other centers available in free agency include Nate Thompson, Brian Boyle, Sam Gagner and Nick Bonino.
After acquiring wingers Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno from Buffalo on Friday, Fletcher said, “We checked a few boxes with the trade today and created some valuable cap space that’ll allow us to move forward and make a couple more decisions this summer.”
On Monday, the Wild didn’t tender defenseman Christian Folin a qualifying offer because he could receive a lucrative arbitration award. Folin’s departure leaves a void on the right side of the third pair. While the Wild was discussing whether to circle back to Folin on Friday now that more cap space was created, the Wild was also looking at other defensemen.
There aren’t a glut of inexpensive right-shot ones. Some include Paul Postma, Ryan Murphy and Roman Polak. Some more expensive ones include Dan Girardi and Cody Franson.
The Wild could also re-sign right-shot Nate Prosser, move left-shot Jonas Brodin to the right side and give left-shot Mike Reilly a serious shot at cracking the lineup along with left-shot Gustav Olofsson.
The Wild never planned to be big players in what’s largely considered a weak free-agent class. Of course, Fletcher has a little more wiggle room after Friday’s trade because several agents who made free-agent pitches to the Wild all week reported that Fletcher told them he needed to first “move money around.”
The Wild’s also in the market for a goalie, maybe on a two-way contract, to compete with Alex Stalock for the backup spot and is expected to sign a number of two-way forwards and defensemen as early as Saturday to fill lost depth from the recent departures of Erik Haula, Alex Tuch, Tyler Graovac and Jordan Schroeder.
Joel Eriksson Ek has a bona fide shot to make next year’s club. Rookie Luke Kunin only has 12 games of pro hockey under his belt but is an option. The Wild has re-signed minor league vet Pat Cannone. Other than them, the Wild has a bunch of unproven forwards in the minors.
The Wild is expected to at least sign high-scoring minor league forward Landon Ferraro, the son of former NHLer Ray Ferraro, on Saturday. Nearly plucked off waivers by the Wild two years ago, Ferraro is coming off reconstructive knee surgery and said to be 100 percent.