Something that has been overshadowed by the euphoric last three weeks of Minnesota hockey was Wild center Matt Cullen donating a million dollars to Sanford Health as part of his Cully's Kids charity. Sure it's not the Wild getting both Minnesota-born Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, prospect development camp or even Nick Bjugstad returning to the Gophers for his junior season but every team needs a grinder to go beyond and above.
And raising a million dollars to help sick kids have a place to play is more than that.
Cullen is not the first Wild player to do something charitable in the health care field - Mikko Koivu donated two private patient rooms at Children's Hospital last year - and likely won't be the last. He's a mensch; however, with a slew of new characters the 35 year-old is just as overshadowed on the ice as off of it. That brings up a question: what is to become of Matt Cullen in 2012-2013 and beyond?
For most of the last two seasons, Cullen has been the Wild's second line center and playing with a rotating cast of characters. Outside of a few times where Kyle Brodziak has taken the second line mantle and other situations like when the annual Mikko Koivu injury has bumped Matt up to the first line, that's constantly been his spot. It makes sense given the money ($10.5 million over 3 years) being paid and abilities Cullen has but despite finishing fifth on the team in scoring last year (35 points in 73 games), Minnesota head coach Mike Yeo is looking to have a $3.5 million bottom-six player.
Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune first had Cullen as the third line left winger in his initial depth chart the day after Minnesota signed Parise and Suter. Yeo furthered the sentiment that 2010 first round pick Mikael Granlund has the second line cneter job when he said in an interview on the Judd and Phunn show last week that "I know that first day of camp (Granlund) will be starting at center. But having said that, there's a good chance that he may bounce around during the course of the season next year.
"So are we better to give him an opportunity to play a little bit of both? I don't know. But I do know from day one of training camp next year I want to give him a chance at center. He's playing center (at the recently completed prospects camp)."
Granlund is versatile, having begun his career with HIFK on the wing before transitioning into a full-time center last year, and there is no guarantee the same thing won't happen in the NHL. Mikael is a playmaker with incredible vision but is also 5'10, 180 lbs and needs to adjust to the North American game. So while he may find success between Devin Setoguchi and Pierre-Marc Bouchard as a rookie, it's just as likely to see the Wild's top prospect on the wing (possibly with fellow Finn Mikko Koivu) at some point this season.
That just won't help Cullen.
Besides not being Mike Yeo's first choice as the second line center, Minnesota has been stockpiling centers. Last year's third-line center (and one of the few pleasant surprises), Brodziak, scored a career-high 22 goals and re-signed for the next three years. Free agency brought Zenon Konopka and Jake Dowell on multi-year deals while the prospect pool has Granlund, Zack Phillips and even Johan Larsson who can play center. With all these choices down the line it's hard to see a place for Cullen - who will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season - long-term.
In the short-term, meanwhile, Matt didn't do himself any favors with how last season ended; like the Wild he started hot and ended injured. Although he finished with 39 points, only 12 came after January 1st. Once Cullen was on the shelf with a broken finger, Minnesota actually improved. They finished the season 4-4 after a month where the team went 4-8 and were blown out by Detroit and Colorado. While there were other factors - Mikko Koivu returning certainly helps - it does go to show Yeo can be successful with other options.
Heck, even the Minnesota-born calling card has been taken over by Parise signing his mega-deal.
But even if there's an argument to trade Cullen (who has a no-trade clause), the Moorhead native still has value. Minnesota's downfall last season was partially caused by a lack of forward depth and it's possible they'll need more as injuries take their toll in 2012-2013. The Wild have done a good job this off-season addressing that issue but keeping Matt, even as a third line wing, gives Yeo options he didn't have last year.
If any man can find a role among depth, it's the one who worked his butt off and raised a million bucks for charity.
Photo Credit: Ben Garvin/Pioneer Press