The Wild will lose one Minnesotan in free agency but gain another.
When the clock strikes 11 a.m. Friday, veteran center Matt Cullen will officially be moving on from the Wild. But defenseman Keith Ballard, who hails from Baudette and won two national championships with the Gophers, will sign a two-year, $3 million contract with Minnesota.
Ballard, unlike most free-agents-to-be, was able to agree to terms before the opening bell because he was bought out Thursday by the Vancouver Canucks.
“This isn’t a big homecoming celebration,” said Ballard, 30. “There’s a lot of work to be done to re-establish my career. It’s an important year for me. I’m not overly wrapped up in [the returning home] side of it. I’m just focused on putting all my efforts into having a good year and helping the team do well.”
Cullen, though, had a phone conversation Wednesday night with Chuck Fletcher in which the general manager said he just didn’t have the salary-cap space to make a legitimate offer.
“It was a sad night in the Cullen household last night,” Cullen said. “We were pretty disappointed but understanding of the situation.”
Ballard is ultra-motivated after three rough years in Vancouver. He had injury problems (shoulder, concussion, knee) and spent much of his tenure dipping in and out of former coach Alain Vigneault’s doghouse.
The old-school Vigneault felt he was too high-risk, and Ballard spent much of his time bouncing from left side to right, from pair to pair and into the press box. In last postseason’s sweep to San Jose, Ballard was scratched for a rookie.
“It was a battle to find the right fit,” Ballard said.
With the Canucks strapped for cap space and Ballard owed $8.4 million the next two years, Vancouver bought him out. Ballard’s salary cap hit in Minnesota will be $1.5 million. The Wild cleared $4 million of cap space Thursday by buying out defenseman Tom Gilbert.
“I did need a change, so to me the buyout is a good thing,” said Ballard, who was sought by a half-dozen teams. “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.”
Ballard, a 2004 Hobey Baker finalist and All-America, is physical (occasionally deploys the almost-extinct hip check), mobile and blocks shots. He has shown the ability to generate points, too, racking up 149 his first five years with Phoenix and Florida before totaling just 16 points in 148 games as a Canuck. He is top-10 in Gophers history in goals and points by a defenseman.
Ballard, a left-shot blue-liner who might play the right side in Minnesota, believes that he can still “play at a high level.”
Cullen, 36, who has played 1,073 games over 15 seasons and won a Stanley Cup with Carolina, scored 33 goals and 101 points in 193 games with the Wild. He scored an additional 11 goals in the shootout.
“I really enjoyed my time there,” said Cullen, who played at Moorhead High and St. Cloud State. “It was more than I would have ever imagined as far as playing at home and raising my kids here and being part of the organization and watching the organization grow from where it was three years ago to where it is now.
“Obviously, I would have liked to have won more games, but last year was one of my 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 says he has received “plenty of interest.” His priority is going someplace he can win. St. Louis, Detroit and Tampa Bay are three teams pursuing.
The going rate for a No. 2 center in free agency (Mike Ribeiro, Valtteri Filppula, Stephen Weiss, Tyler Bozak) is expensive and long-term, so unless Fletcher can find a bargain or has something else up his sleeve, the Wild might pass the baton to youngsters Charlie Coyle or Mikael Granlund next season.