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Former Wild winger Cal Clutterbuck has four goals for the Islanders. “The trade was something I thought I was ready for, but once it actually happens, it’s a way, way different feeling,” he said.

Frank Franklin II • Associated Press,

Clutterbuck returns in an Islanders jersey

  • Article by: Michael Russo
  • Star Tribune
  • December 29, 2013 - 1:30 PM

C al Clutterbuck never got a chance to say goodbye.

He didn’t make the choice and leave the Wild as a free agent, didn’t get disgruntled and ask to be traded.

He was simply dealt from the organization he grew up in last June in a draft-day swap with the Islanders involving young Nino Niederreiter.

Clutterbuck, 26, never got to properly say adios to his former teammates, shake hands with team personnel who took care of him for parts of six seasons and, most of all, thank the fans who made his jersey one of the highest sold during his tenure as the Wild’s resident heavy hitter.

Clutterbuck became an instant fan favorite thanks to his cool last name and glass-rattling style, but the winger was surprised at the level of disappointment by some when he was traded. He is excited to return Sunday night as an Islander and will be acknowledged by the Wild with a video tribute.

“It’s not like they traded Zach Parise or Mikko Koivu or Ryan Suter or anything like that,” Clutterbuck said. “There are people there that are fans of mine, and I appreciate that and I appreciate people there taking a liking to me when I was a kid. I loved playing there. I loved playing in that building in front of those people. I definitely miss playing in front of those fans 41 times a year.”

‘It just didn’t work out’

Clutterbuck was a restricted free agent last summer and knew a trade was a possibility when his agent, Pat Morris, was getting nowhere with the Wild on a short-term deal.

“At the end of the day, there was the business aspect, which is the oldest cliché going in sports,” Clutterbuck said. “Both sides were trying to make something work out so the trade didn’t have to happen. But there were a lot of moving parts, and at the end of the day, it just didn’t work out.”

If the Wild wanted to re-sign Clutterbuck and free-agent center Matt Cullen, it needed to free up salary-cap space. The team was hamstrung by its inability to buy out winger Dany Heatley’s $7.5 million cap hit because he was deemed injured.

General Manager Chuck Fletcher’s first priority was goaltending because of Josh Harding’s uncertain health situation. After not being able to make a trade and seeing the dearth of free agents available, the Wild re-signed veteran Niklas Backstrom.

That all but sealed Clutterbuck’s fate because Fletcher got nowhere in his attempt to trade Devin Setoguchi. With the Wild looking to upgrade, Clutterbuck was one of the team’s few assets who had legit value. Clutterbuck was pursued by a number of teams and the Wild zeroed in on Niederreiter, 21, the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft, who it believes has the skill set to develop into a consistent goal scorer.

“The trade was something I thought I was ready for,” Clutterbuck said. “But once it actually happens, it’s a way, way different feeling. There’s a lot more emotions once it actually happens. I was kind of ready for it and then when it happens, you realize you’re not really that ready for it.”

The confusing part is that five days later, the Wild essentially replaced Clutterbuck with Matt Cooke, who is nine years older. That made some feel, as Clutterbuck said, “that maybe they were just ready to move on from me and go in a different direction.”

But the Cooke signing only came because once the Winnipeg Jets missed out on a few free agents, they hurriedly called up Fletcher and offered a second-round pick for Setoguchi. That freed up money to sign Cooke.

Memories remain

Clutterbuck has embraced his new team but still misses his day-to-day interaction with old teammates. He was taken under the wing of former Wild players such as Andrew Brunette and Nick Schultz, looked up to guys such as Mikko Koivu and forged close friendships with Harding and Kyle Brodziak.

He still laughs at stories, “like the one time me and Boogey [the late Derek Boogaard] pulled the prank on Eric Belanger” by stuffing packing peanuts in his car. Belanger was so angry, he ripped up the gift certificate Clutterbuck and Boogaard left on his windshield to get the car vacuumed out.

These days, Clutterbuck has a 15-month-old daughter and his wife, Cassie, is six months pregnant with their second girl. “I’m a pretty goofy dad,” Clutterbuck said, chuckling.

The Islanders played at home Saturday night, so Clutterbuck, who has four goals and two assists in 33 games, wasn’t scheduled to arrive in Minnesota until the wee hours of Sunday morning.

“In a lot of ways, that’s good,” he said. “I won’t have time to think and psych myself out. I can just shift my focus, play and see whoever I have to see after the game.”

Since the NHL began recording hits in 2005-06, Clutterbuck is the Wild’s franchise leader by almost 1,000 with 1,457. Asked if he plans to clock any old comrades, Clutterbuck said, “That’s the uncomfortable thing. It’ll be interesting to see what my instincts are telling me to do out there.

“Minnesota was a great place for me. The stage I was in my career, it was a good chance to establish myself in the league and it was a good place to grow up and learn a lot of things as a player and person. I miss it, but trust me, I’m happy where I’m at.”

© 2014 Star Tribune