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Matt Cullen picks Minnesota over Penguins

Jonathan Bombulie
| Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, 3:12 p.m.
The Penguins' Matt Cullen raises the Stanley Cup after beating the Predators in the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday, June 11, 2017 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Matt Cullen raises the Stanley Cup after beating the Predators in the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday, June 11, 2017 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.

Veteran forward Matt Cullen will play a 20th season in the NHL, but it won't be with the Penguins.

Cullen, 40, signed a one-year contract with the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday. It will pay him $1 million in base salary and up to $700,000 in bonuses.

His breakup with the Penguins was an emotional one.

Cullen was a cornerstone of two Stanley Cup championship teams after signing with the Penguins as a free agent in August of 2015. Not only was he the anchor of the team's fourth line and a trusted penalty killer, he was also a respected voice in the locker room.

Ultimately, Cullen passed up a chance at a three-peat with the Penguins for family reasons. He has three sons under age 12.

“At age 40, it's time to let the kids find some roots and settle down at home,” said Cullen, a native of Virginia, Minn. “As you go through a long career, the kids give up a lot to allow you to play. At a certain point here, it becomes more important to be fair to them, too.”

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said he wasn't surprised by Cullen's rationale.

“I'm disappointed, but I understand where the decision is coming from,” Rutherford said. “I knew it was always going to be family-related, and he stuck to that.”

Rutherford signed Cullen three times and traded for him once in a professional relationship that dates to 2005 in Carolina. Cullen said calling his former GM was the hardest thing he had to do Wednesday.

“Jim was the first and most difficult (call),” Cullen said. “You never want to let down the guy who has done so much for you in your career. I think Jim knows how much I think of him and how much I feel I owe him for what he's done for my career. If he hadn't made the phone call a couple of years ago, I would be coaching youth hockey right now. I owe him an awful lot. That was the most difficult.

“Calling (Sidney Crosby and Mike Sullivan), those are just not easy calls to make. They're friendships that will last forever. It's not easy to make those, but obviously they're all understanding of how it works and what went into the decision.”

For Rutherford, Cullen's decision crystallizes his plans for the rest of the offseason.

There is now little mystery about who will start the season as his team's fourth-line center. It almost certainly will be Carter Rowney, the sturdy 6-foot-2 right-hander who emerged as a capable bottom-six presence in 27 games as a 27-year-old rookie last season.

“We are comfortable with Carter Rowney,” Rutherford said. “We felt he came a long ways and played very well last year. We hope to get a little more production out of him in that fourth-line spot, but other than that, nothing's really changed.”

There is no ambiguity about the team's salary cap space. With the arbitration-eligible pair of Brian Dumoulin and Conor Sheary under contract and Cullen out of the picture, Rutherford has about $3.2 million to work with as he faces the No. 1 item on his offseason to-do list — finding a third-line center.

“We weren't looking at Matt as a third-line center,” Rutherford said. “We'll still continue to look for that guy.”

Rutherford said he's having no problems remaining patient. He reiterated Wednesday he could pick up the phone and acquire a player who could fill the role at a moment's notice.

“I've got a couple of guys I could get that I think are adequate guys,” he said.

He's willing to wait, however, to see if any more impactful centers become available at a reasonable price as teams get closer to setting their opening-night lineups.

“Still working on that,” Rutherford said. “I'll make that deal when it's one of the guys that I think has a chance to do that job properly. If that's done today, that would be fine. If it's done in November or December, we'll make it work until then.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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