Wild get priority free agent Matt Cullen, land Eric Nystrom, too
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When NHL free agency opened late Wednesday night, the Minnesota Wild's first call was to veteran center Matt Cullen.
By dinnertime on Thursday, the Minnesota native was headed home.
The Wild signed Cullen and left wing Eric Nystrom to three-year deals before free agency was 24 hours old, continuing the process of targeting talent and character that began last week when general manager Chuck Fletcher swung a deal for enforcer Brad Staubitz.
"We've now added a real quality centerman in Matt Cullen, we've added some quality players in Eric Nystrom and Brad Staubitz, and we feel that we have a lot of young players who are one year wiser and better," Fletcher said in a conference call with Twin Cities reporters.
"You're always looking to improve your team, but again, we like our hockey team today. We know we have a much better hockey team tonight than we did this morning."
Cullen, 33, signed for a reported $10.5 million. Nystrom, 27, got a reported $4.2 million, although Fletcher said the paperwork hasn't been signed as of early Thursday evening.
The top priority was Cullen, who was born in Virginia, Minn., and went on to star at Moorhead High School and St. Cloud State University before the Anaheim Ducks selected him in the second round of the 1996 NHL Draft.
Cullen -- whom Fletcher already has penciled in as the No. 2 center -- has played 880 games with the Ducks, Florida, Carolina, New York Rangers and Ottawa. But he felt he played the best hockey of his life for the Senators in last year's playoffs, in which he had three goals and five assists in six games.
"I feel as good as I ever have and I feel like I'm a better player than I've ever been," said Cullen, who has 461 career points (169 goals, 292 assists).
"For me, that's exciting, to be coming home to Minnesota to play when I'm on top of my game."
Fletcher called Cullen "a player that can play power play, penalty kill, 4-on-4, 5-on-5, center, wing -- you name it, and it's that versatility and that work ethic that really impressed our coaching staff and our scouting staff and really led us to this point today. It's a big moment for us."
Nystrom was Calgary's first-round draft pick (10th overall) in the 2002 draft and has played parts of four seasons with the Flames. He posted career highs last season with 11 goals and eight assists in 82 games.
"Eric Nystrom's a player that is a gritty, hard-working player that shows up every night and is a terrific human being," Fletcher said.
The Wild also lost one player on Thursday when enforcer Derek Boogaard signed a four-year, $6.5 million deal with the New York Rangers. Fletcher said he had good communication with Boogaard's agent but indicated the price was much too high.
Fletcher addressed several other issues, including:
• The team "looked at a couple" of defensemen in free agency on Thursday but doesn't view the position as one that has to be addressed. "We feel we have six quality NHL defensemen and a few young players that are terrific prospects and poised to make an impact in the NHL in the near future," Fletcher said. "You're always looking to improve. But if the season were to start tomorrow, I would be very comfortable with the group we have right now."
• The team is confident Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who played in only one game last season and saw a concussion specialist last month, will regain his health and return to form. If that happens, "we are a pretty good hockey team," Fletcher said. "We're a four-line hockey team, and we're a little bit better hockey team than what people think we are."
• Fletcher repeatedly talked about the focus on improving character, work ethic and leadership -- issues that came up in postseason exit interviews. "Our goal is to be an organization that's respected as a good place to play and a place where you can go and win games and a place that has a discernible identity with respect to character and work ethic, and we feel we made some progress today in those areas."
Cullen said the commitment to character was "a great first step. That excites me as much as anything, because I don't think you can win without a good character group."
The Wild had pursued Cullen twice before in free agency. But this time, for a guy who has family in the Fargo-Moorhead area and still makes his home there, the chance to come home was one he couldn't pass up -- especially knowing the Wild called him first.
"I've got a smile that you can't wipe off, I'll tell you that," Cullen said. "I am thrilled."