When it was confirmed that Matt Cullen was inked to a three year deal, Wild fans we ecstatic. Finally, they thought, a second line center to help take some pressure off of Mikko Koivu. Hell, the stats weren't great, but Cullen was better than Eric Belanger, right? At that point, it seemed likely that the Wild had made a major upgrade and that everything would roll easily.
As is the way with the world, it did not work out that way.
Last season, Cullen was consistent with his career type stats, posting 39 points (12 goals, 27A), and yet was a complete disappointment for fans. Cullen was replaced on the "second" line by Kyle Brodziak, and the Martin Havlat - Kyle Brodziak - Pierre-Marc Bourchard line was actually considered by competition to be the Wild's top line for the bulk of the year.
With Guillaume Latendresse healthy, will Matt Cullen find renewed jump and reclaim his second line role, or will Kyle Brodziak earn himself a big raise in a contract year?
We all watched as time after time the Wild attempted to slot in third and fourth line checkers into the second line role. The signing of Matt Cullen was supposed to solve all of that. Let's just say, it didn't work.
With just three days of camp under their belts, there are mixed reviews of Matt Cullen's play on the proposed second line. He did have a handful of nice defensive plays, and hit the pipe with a shot, but looked a step behind the play of Bouchard and Latendresse for the length of the 50 minute session.
Perhaps that was planned, and Cullen will be more of a safety net for the other two guys, giving them the freedom to operate deep in the offensive zone and take some chances to create opportunities. The idea of the center not dropping into the zone is not going to be popular around these parts, however, so we'll just move on.
Matt Cullen is not an 80 point player. It is not his career level of play, it is not realistic, and is not fair to expect. It is fair, however, to expect the second line center to have second line ability to stay with the play and contribute to the process. Early in the warm up session, the confidence in his ability to do so is suspect.
The hope for everyone is that Cullen steps up and regains the form we saw early last season. This is a better team if Cullen is on his game and keeping pace with Butch and Lats. It will be an extremely fun line to watch, and if Cullen is on it and clicking, it only adds to the excitement.
However, the Wild have options should Cullen slip back to a third line role again. The obvious solution is to move Kyle Brodziak up in the lineup. Brodziak has stated more than once that he feels more comfortable in a checking role, and with him on a line with Powe and Clutterbuck the Wild have one of the potentially best checking lines in the game.
Think of it this way. Brodziak is the new Wes Walz. Can he play up and keep up? Sure he can, but the team is much better off with him in a shutdown role. Preventing a goal is just as good as scoring one, and Brodizak is much better at preventing them.
After Brodziak, the Wild could go with a risky move and give the spot to a prospect such as Casey Wellman, David MacIntyre, or whoever emerges among the Aeros as deserving a chance to play a top six role in the NHL. If this is the solution, and the call up doesn't have a Calder worthy season, the Wild could be trouble. The second line spot is critical to the success of a team, and giving that spot to a rookie is one hell of a gamble.
The best solution for the Wild is for Matt Cullen to be the second line center, find that higher gear and make his linemates that much better. Kyle Brodziak is a worthy fill in, but should not be the long term solution. Right now, the spot is Cullen's to lose, and in his 13th season, Cullen has to be aware of the young bucks gunning for his spot. It's time for him to lock down his job and keep the kids waiting a bit longer.