Reading tea leaves can be a risky business, but sometimes the conclusions are too obvious to ignore. Matt Cullen can still play hockey at the NHL level if he chooses, but the Pittsburgh Penguins will need to be more flexible than a magician’s assistant to make it happen. The Penguins simply don’t have the salary cap space, barring a trade which creates salary cap space or demoting a valuable NHL player like Carter Rowney, to accommodate the 40-year-old stalwart center.
It’s a cruel world. The kids needed to be paid. Brian Dumoulin earned a contract above $4 million annually. Conor Sheary earned $3 million. Add Justin Schultz‘ bank-breaking three-year haul worth $5.5 million annually and the Penguins have just $3.2 million left.
Most teams prefer at least $1 million cap space, in order to fill holes created by injury and unexpected ineffectiveness. Since the Penguins have played 211 games over the past two seasons, injuries will be a likely occurrence…just as continuous and serious injuries were a plague last season.
General Manager Jim Rutherford learned his lesson about keeping a cushion at the end of 2015 when an extra move at the trade deadline was followed by a perfect storm of injuries and lack of cap space to dress a sixth defenseman. Indeed, lesson learned.
So, for practical purposes, the Penguins are playing with about $2.2 million to acquire a third line center. Rutherford stated last week the Penguins could but probably wouldn’t send salary away in the deal for a third center. So, the team isn’t shopping for a Mercedes like Jordan Staal, they’re looking for a used Honda and an inattentive owner. A third center will certainly require most or all of that $2.2 million.
In successive seasons, the Penguins locker room has lost too much “glue”. Gone are Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino and Ben Lovejoy. Trevor Daley was a big part of the room, as well. For a team which gutted its way to a repeat Stanley Cup, losing big pieces of the team heartbeat is detrimental.
Cullen is one player with enough respect and standing to hold anyone accountable. Head coach Mike Sullivan has repeatedly called Cullen an extension of the coaching staff.
Can the Penguins afford to lose Cullen’s production (13g, 18a)? No. Can they afford to lose his presence? No. But, can they afford to re-sign him without making changes? Again, no.
The Penguins could stash Carter Rowney in the AHL and ride Cullen as the fourth line center. Rowney is a stout penalty killer, which could be all too useful with the loss of Bonino. Unfortunately, Rowney provides little scoring punch, which limits his overall effectiveness.
Should the Penguins take Rowney out of the lineup after an impressive, physical playoff run? The Penguins could well make this choice and use Rowney as a utility call-up.
Let the season unfold. Let Cullen put the kids on the school bus and pack lunches for a couple months. Nothing cures an athlete’s decision to retire early like daytime TV. A couple weeks of guessing if Jethro is the father of his cousin’s baby should light a fire under the man the Penguins already call “Dad”.
There is a precedent for teams waiting on older leaders to return. When the Anaheim Ducks were defending Cup champions in 2007, defenseman Scott Niedermayer didn’t return to the club until December in successive seasons.
The same short season approach with a prorated salary could be the perfect compromise for Cullen. Sullivan and Rutherford could use the early season to let younger players gain NHL experience in a low-pressure situation, then evaluate their situation before Cullen returns.
Or, Cullen could render this discussion moot. He certainly seemed to be a man satisfied with his career as he smiled broadly when asked the obvious question during the celebration in Nashville. As Rutherford said, he’s Matt Cullen–he’s earned the right to take his time.
The same may not be true for the Penguins.
Photo Credit: Michael Miller. Follow him on Twitter at @PensRyourDaddy