With only 11 goals and 11 assists in 79 games, Matt Cullen’s numbers from last season look like a 41-year old center who might have had his last hoorah. His point total dropped by ten from the previous two seasons and his ice-time dwindled by two minutes per game. Bruce Boudreau and the Minnesota Wild coaching staff clearly didn’t see a great fit for the 24-year veteran.
Last season, there was no consistency in Cullen’s assignments. The man who made the fourth line his home in Pittsburgh was shuffled around the Minnesota lineup and press box. The bottom-six for the Wild was interchangeable for most of the year, but in the playoffs, he was placed skated Charlie Coyle and Tyler Ennis. On the third line.
That’s why Jim Rutherford spent an entire year trying to get Cullen back. Rutherford finally succeeded on July 1, when the Penguins signed Cullen to a one-year contract worth $650,000. Cullen will get one more chance to finish his career in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh Hockey Now spent several days watching video of Cullen in Minnesota. Specifically, PHN watched video of different types of opponents, including Mar. 16 against the Vegas Golden Knights, April 13 against the physical Winnipeg Jets. PHN also included Minnesota’s Feb. 15 game against the Washington Capitals and the Mar. 31 game against the Dallas Stars.
The most obvious question PHN had to answer was–At 41-years-old, does Cullen still skate well? The answer was a resounding yes.
-Smart with the puck; situational guru
-Versatile, can play both center and wing
-Excellent penalty killer
Three of these five were on display in his first shift on March 16th against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Cullen gets involved in the forecheck immediately and won the battle to center-ice where Wild defenseman, Matt Dumba could make a play on the puck. This is exactly the type of play which the Penguins want.
As the play continued, Dumba tried to make the save play to Mikael Granlund but it failed, and he turned the puck over to Vegas defenseman, Brayden McNabb. Cullen’s hockey sense surfaced exponentially from there. Once Dumba received the puck after the chip play from McNabb, Cullen exploited the seam and the Grade-A opportunity arose.
The Penguins love players with the ability to go to the dirty areas. Look no further than Patric Hornqvist, Zach Aston-Reese and now, as Dan Kingerski highlighted a few days ago, Derek Grant.
In short, Cullen’s skillset didn’t diminish while he was in Minnesota, including this heady play to bury the puck from the net-front area:
Ennis made a really nice play below the goal line to get the puck in front, and Cullen shadowed the puck. He found vacant ice to the far side as two Sharks migrated toward Ennis. Once the puck got loose in front, the goal was a chip-shot for Cullen.
-Lacks consistent scoring touch
-Struggled against larger, physical opponents
Some of Cullen’s worst performances last year were against the biggest and baddest team in the Western Conference, the Winnipeg Jets.
Cullen tried to cheat up ice against the Jets tenacious forecheck. Cullen got caught trying to use his speed for a stretch pass, but Coyle couldn’t feed him. By then, Cullen was too far out of position to make an impact back in the defensive zone.
Cullen has also been known to leave himself vulnerable on the boards, allowing larger defensemen to take free runs at him. Don’t forget the hit from Predators’ defenseman Matt Irwin in Game 2 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.
Cullen has a leg up on the other depth forwards like Aston-Reese, Grant and Dominick Simon. Cullen should still be a quality piece who should get back to his 2016 and 2017 levels of play which made him invaluable.
It’s easy to critique a move in which a team acquires a soon-to-be 42-year old but Cullen’s cerebral-type game is still effective. And his skates are every bit as good as they were when he was in Pittsburgh. He hasn’t lost a step.
Playing in the East, the conference of speed and finesse, Cullen’s skillset will fit well. He probably won’t post 15 goals, but if the Penguins need to win a weak-side, defensive zone faceoff late in a big game, there is no player better for that situation than Cullen.
If the Penguins choose to do so, Cullen could still more than capably fill the fourth-line center role. This was another win for Jim Rutherford.