At some point, every father has to show his kids that he’s still got the hop in his step and the skills to compete. For Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cullen, this training camp has been about showing that he still has the speed which helped him score 63 points in two years with the Penguins from 2015-2017, and showing the kids that the old man still has the fire which helped lead the Penguins to Stanley Cup championships in those same two seasons.
Cullen, the man the Penguins affectionately called “Dad,” was to finish his career closer to home with the Minnesota Wild, last season. With a few Stanley Cup rings, one with the Carolina Hurricanes and two with the Penguins (but all with Penguins GM Jim Rutherford), Cullen was to ride off into the cold prairie sunset. But things didn’t go as planned for the now 42-year-old forward in Minnesota.
Minnesota posted 101 points in the regular season but lasted just five games in Round One against the Winnipeg Jets. Cullen’s point total fell to only 22 points (11g, 11a) and he was even a healthy scratch. And so “Dad” left home to come home to Pittsburgh.
Sunday, Cullen set the tempo early. His work in the battle drills at the 9 a.m. practice session earned sustained stick taps from every player on the ice. As Cullen raced to the red line to complete the drill, he realized the on-ice applause was for him and sheepishly laughed. Moments later, he again outworked his opponents by showing speed and determination.
On the first shift of the Saturday scrimmage, Cullen’s intensity cost Evgeni Malkin a couple of teeth and a fat lip. Cullen accidentally hit Malkin with a high-stick. In a testament to Cullen’s standing within the team hierarchy, Malkin laughed off the injury.
“He’s still young. Its tough to play against him,” Malkin quipped. “I’m glad he’s back. He gives confidence to the young guys and leadership in the locker room, too.”
So what about those teeth Cullen knocked out? “He just like broke a couple of my teeth, but they were fake. They were fixed (Saturday). It was an easy one hour,” said Malkin.
Dad set the kids straight. And the Penguins sorely missed that presence last season as they searched for their stride and struggled with sloppy play for most of the year. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan routinely referred to Cullen as “an extension of the coaching staff” during Cullen’s first Penguins tenure. It seems the Penguins specifically wanted that leadership back.
They definitely got the leadership. And the Penguins are getting a player who is making a point to show the hop in his skates, too. At Cullen’s age, and with the Penguins overstocked forward depth, a lousy camp could have relegated him to the press box. Instead, Cullen is setting the standard. Again.
Last season, the Penguins top scorer on the fourth line was Ryan Reaves. Despite being dealt to Vegas at the trade deadline in the Derick Brassard deal, Reaves’ 10 points were the high total from the bottom line. Riley Sheahan had 32 points, but most of those were on the third line. Fourth line left winger Tom Kuhnhackl scored only eight points (2g, 6a) last season, which is a far cry from the 32 and 31 points Cullen scored in 2015-16 and 2016-17, respectively.
Saturday, Cullen told PHN that he’s “played enough left wing and center in my career. I don’t have a preference,” he said. However, Cullen acknowledged the different approach in the two positions, “(At left wing), you can focus more on offense,” Cullen said while refuting the wing is easier physically than playing center.
Fittingly, Cullen’s team (Team 3) won the Penguins training camp tournament, “(In the scrimmage) his line dominated,” Malkin said Sunday.
There are no guarantees in life. The Penguins nor Cullen can guarantee that he will last the entire season or that one of the other players will not surpass him. However, Cullen is already pushing others to be better by merely setting an example. The Penguins cannot guarantee another Stanley Cup with Cullen or that Cullen’s sons will have the chance to make jean shorts from the jeans of an unsuspecting teammate.
But with “Dad” showing the kids he’s still got it, those chances for another championship parade increase. And maybe someday, Cullen will be able to walk away. Just not yet.