Matt Cullen was convinced he was going to retire from the NHL after last season.
But then he began training in the summer out of habit and when the Penguins reached out, the 42-year-old was excited.
“[I] felt like I could do it again,” Cullen said.
And although the veteran forward didn’t return to the Wild, instead exiting after 2017-18 to rejoin the Penguins for a second time, Cullen is grateful for the opportunity he had to play again in his native Minnesota.
“It was a good experience,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade it. It was fun coming back home.”
After signing with the Wild as a free agent in 2017 to begin his second stint with the organization following a three-season run with the Wild (2010-13), Cullen chipped in 11 goals and 22 points in 79 games — skating as a depth center who could help on the penalty kill.
What was especially meaningful to Cullen was the chance to give his three sons a taste of the upbringing he had growing up in Moorhead.
“We had a lot of nights on the outdoor rink in the backyard,” said Cullen, a former standout at St. Cloud State. “A lot of great memories.”
The entire family moved to Pittsburgh after Cullen signed a one-year, $650,000 contract on July 1, and his transition back to the Penguins for his 21st season in the NHL has gone seamlessly; Cullen has taken on a responsibility like the one he had from 2015 to ’17 when he and Pittsburgh won back-to-back Stanley Cups — the second and third of Cullen’s career — by working up the middle on the fourth line and handling penalty-kill duties.
“He’s very familiar with how we play,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He likes how we play. Our players are very familiar with him, and vice versa. He’s playing a similar role this year that he played for us when we won Stanley Cups, so it was an easy fit to plug him back in.
“And Cully just, he always has the right demeanor, the right disposition. He’s such a great role model for every guy in that room, our young guys in particular. You look at his body of work as a player, he’s been a really good player in this league for a long time.”
Wild backup goalie Alex Stalock closed out the 2018 portion of the season having made only seven starts, with his last one Dec. 6, but Stalock’s workload is expected to increase in the second half.
Stalock is 5-3 with a .903 save percentage and 2.60 goals-against average.
“If you look at our schedules in February and March, they’re really loaded and Alex deserves to play some more games,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “It’s probably something we’re going to do.”
Defenseman Nick Seeler missed a second straight game with an upper-body injury.
He did skate Monday, Boudreau said, and will likely accompany the team on its upcoming four-game, Eastern Conference road trip.
With Seeler out, Matt Bartkowski remained in the lineup after getting recalled Saturday from the American Hockey League.
Bartkowski became the fourth defenseman and 25th player to score in his Wild debut, the opening goal in the 3-1 win over the Jets — a game in which Bartkowski finished a plus-2 and skated 10 minutes, 52 seconds.
“He played a simple game,” Boudreau said. “Other than the goal, I didn’t notice him much — which is what you want.”