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Pens Can’t Afford to Sign or to Lose Matt Cullen

Matt Cullen By Michael Miller - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60455530

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.

Option 1:

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.

Option 2:

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

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Matt Durney

    August 2, 2017 at 10:44 am

    This article doesn’t make any sense. Yes, the pens have 2.2 million in cap space but GMJR already stated he’s going to make a trade for a center. And even if they sign Matt Cullen late, they don’t have to stash Rowney. He can also play wing and sit on the fourth line. Wilson or TK could be stashed.

    Also, can the pens afford to lose his production…yes. Can they afford to lose his presence…yes. You don’t think Crosby or Letang have pull to lead a team?

    • Dan Kingerski

      August 2, 2017 at 11:03 am

      Thanks for reading, but you’ll have to re-read the math section. $3.2 million, minus a $1 buffer is $2.2 million. A 3rd line center will cost about that much. = if the Pens want an adequate cushion for call-ups due to injury, they have to move someone down or trade salary in order to sign Cullen.

      • Matthew

        August 3, 2017 at 9:18 am

        Gotcha. For salary cap purposes if someone goes down to injury, at least long term, they don’t count against the cap. If they call someone up, you don’t need to have a buffer. The cap is also managed daily. So you can send people up/down on a daily basis to make room. The buffer is nice basically just for trade deadline purposes.

        Overall though, I really enjoy your work and this website. It’s a little better than pensburgh. But I think people overvalue what Cullen brings in terms of leadership and even production. I think not trading oskar s. would have been the best option. Reaves is just horrible.

  2. Michael Lepley

    August 5, 2017 at 4:00 pm

    Dan,

    There is one other problem with the math on this though. Your original # of $3.2 appears to be wrong. Currently the Pens Have $2.48 mill in cap space. I believe wherever you got your #s from that site did not list Pouliot on the cap. He did sign a 1 way contract and thus must be added in at $800K. That leaves $1.48 mill so they’ll have to trade someone or move a player down just to get a 3C. I don’t think they’ll find one worthy under $1.5 Mill.

    I think the Pens could still have interest in any level of center to be their 3C. From the big name guys like Duchene and Bozak, to guys like Adam Henrique and on down the cap levels they have the ability to get any of them, Sakic not withstanding. The key is what they give up in return. Let’s face it the Pens are a major contender and as in most cases with contenders keeping everyone will remain next to impossible. Rust, Hornqvist, Wilson, Reaves, Cole,and Kuhn will have contract talks next year some will get nice raises and some will get small raises, but you just can’t keep everybody. Plus with guys like Sprong, ZAR (Aston-Reese), and maybe Adam Johnson so they will need roster spots eventually.

    The Pens are and will be against the cap so trading high level prospects makes no sense. If the last two years have taught us anything it is that young impact players that have no cap hit are necessary. Wingers are the area of major depth. If I am the Pens and I am trading a winger I need them to have trade value so I can get a Bonino type player or better and they have to give me a little cap space back so they have to have a cap hit of at least $2 million(that leaves out Wilson, Kuhn, Archibald, Reave and cap value guys like Rust and Guentzel). They can’t be one of my major playoff contributors (Kessel 18 goals 45 points last two seasons). That leaves Sheary, Hagelin, and Hornqvist. We saw in the playoffs this year that they need physical guys that can play against teams like Ottawa so that rules out Hornqvist. Hagelin probably wouldn’t get you as much in return as Sheary and he plays PK and right now the Pens are short on PK guys. Sheary can’t play PK, the 3rd line, or 4th line effectively, and his playoffs struggles two years in a row are a concern for a contender. They may need to add more than just him. It depends on who they go after, but Archibald should be able to man the 3RW spot until Sprong or ZAR come up.

  3. Kelly Walker

    August 5, 2017 at 10:24 pm

    The team may not be searching for a Mercedes, but if the want a real shot at a 3rd straight championship they’d better not go dumpster diving either. I don’t want Jordan Staal, but these other guys whose names have come up like Duchene and Bozak or Kadri look pretty good. Why can’t the Pens trade guys like Hagelin and a defenseman like Cole or Maatta and a prospect like Sprong and get a good 3C and also save cap money at the same time. Then they’d be able to afford Cullen and and still have lots left over. Hagelin doesn’t score any goals. especially for a $$ million guy. I know he isn’t bad, but he won’t be missed. Maatta is OK, but again the cost $4 mill seems too high. Sprong may be a decent prospect, but there is no guaranty that he’ll be as good as Guentzel, Sheary, and Rust. Youth is great, but nobody is missing the kid they gave up for Kessel and he was supposed to be pretty special.

    The Caps won’t be anywhere near as good next year and the Senators will get back to reality. The Blue jackets and Rangers have improved themselves a little, but not enough. Toronto might be tough and the Lightning are good when healthy. It really looks like a good year for the Pens to make a run even if they weren’t coming off back to back Championships. They need to go for it

    BTW the link to this page says this story is from today, but it looks like it is actually several days old. I love your stuff Dan Thanks for the read.

  4. Dennis Doubleday

    August 14, 2017 at 9:40 am

    I have not doubt Cullen could play 3C, with Rowney at 4C. Problem solved.

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