ST. PAUL, Minn. — One is the longest tenured member of the Minnesota Wild. One is the oldest member of the team to play more than eight games this season. Together, they were two-thirds of one of Minnesota’s top lines this season at times, and when they were going strong was when the Wild were at their best.
The cases of Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Matt Cullen will be interesting this offseason. Each can play center and wing, and each has offensive talent that Minnesota could use. Each is also an unrestricted free agent and their return to the Wild is not a certainty.
Bouchard and Cullen join goaltender Niklas Backstrom, forward Stephane Veilleux and defensemen Justin Falk and Brett Clark as unrestrictred free agents.
“With the cap going down, obviously you’re not going to be able to keep your entire team,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said at his season-ending press conference. “We know that. We’re going to have to make some choices and there’s some areas we want to improve anyway. There will be some changes this summer. I don’t think it will be quite as dramatic as last summer or maybe even the summer before, but there will be some changes. I think we’ll ice a pretty competitive team next year. But my job’s just starting.”
Goaltender, with Backstrom a free agent, is the biggest question to be answered this offseason. How Minnesota fills out the forward lines will be a big topic too and there is likely interest in retaining at least one of Cullen or Bouchard, especially with the importance of Cullen this season and Bouchard finally showing complete health after several concussion-riddled seasons.
In many ways, the Wild’s season was tied to Cullen. When Minnesota was streaking to the division lead in the middle of the season, Cullen was clicking on the second line with Devin Setoguchi and either Bouchard or rookie Jason Zucker on the other side. Cullen had seven goals and 20 assists to rank fourth on the team in scoring and assists.
When he missed time with an injury, the offense struggled.
“I’m going to have to look into it,” Cullen said of his future after the season ended. “I’m going to need some time to sit down and think, spend some time with the family and take a step back from everything. You never want to make any decisions when you’re disappointed or emotional, I guess. Those emotions are still pretty raw losing just a few nights ago. So, take some time and think things over.”
Cullen, the Virginia, Minn. native, has played 15 NHL seasons and won a Stanley Cup. His decision seems as tied to whether he wants to keep playing as whether Minnesota wants to re-sign the veteran center.
Cullen, 36, said he was healthy at the end of the season and expects to be fine after a few weeks of letting the usual bumps and bruises heal. But he was also clearly disappointed in the Wild’s first-round playoff loss.
“It’s going to take some time for that to wear off,” Cullen said. “I think we have a team that’s good enough to do more than I think we did, but for sure it’s a step forward to make the playoffs. It’s disappointing.”
Bouchard, 29, has been with Minnesota longer than anyone, originally a first-round draft pick by the team — and the former front office — back in the 2002 draft at No. 8 overall. He played 43 games this season, on pace in a full season for the most he’s played since 2007-08. Those concussion issues, which had limited him the past four seasons appear to be behind him.
“It was kind of fun to be healthy all season long, even if it was half a season with the lockout,” Bouchard said. “The body’s feeling good. My head is feeling great. So that’s a good sign…it was a big step, especially with the last few years with concussion issues. I got hit hard a few times out there, so everything is good.”
Bouchard had his ups-and-downs this year, even being a healthy scratch at times earlier this season. But he also showed glimpses of the playmaking talent that has led him to being a 20-goal and 60-point scorer for the Wild earlier in his career.
He finished seventh for Minnesota in scoring with 20 points (eight goals, 13 assists). He was second on the team in playoff scoring with two points and had one of the team’s seven goals.
Bouchard ranks second all-time in team history in games played and third in points, and acknowledges this offseason is strange as he hits unrestricted free agency for the first time.
“I’ve been here a lot of years and it’s been fun,” Bouchard said after the season ended. “For sure it is kind of weird. It is my first time in that situation without knowing if I’ll be back next year. Yeah, it is a little bit emotional.”
Bouchard would like to be back, but acknowledges the decision might not be in his hands.
“I love it here in Minnesota,” Bouchard said. “I would like to play for the Wild next season, but I guess sometimes it’s not up to the player to make the call. It’s a big business and I guess we’ll have a few meetings with Chuck maybe in the next few weeks.”