No one remembers when you’re right about something, but make a mistake or a bad read and everyone is talking about it in perpetuity. That is especially true when you give a definitive opinion about a signing made by the local NHL team that is completely off-base.
That is exactly what this writer did last August – Aug. 6, 2015 to be exact – when the Penguins signed 38-year-old center Matt Cullen to a one-year, $800,000 dollar contract to slot in on their fourth line.
The move just didn’t seem to make sense.
Jim Rutherford had recently completed a trade with the Vancouver Canucks to acquire Nick Bonino while signing Eric Fehr to a three-year contract at the same time. Both players are centers and seemed destined to slot in behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the third and fourth lines respectively. Fehr was going to miss the beginning of the season following off-season surgery, but the team had highly-touted prospect Oskar Sundqvist waiting in the wings.
To bring in Cullen meant stunting Sundqvist’s growth and making the team older and less likely to go further in the playoffs than they did the previous spring, being eliminated by the New York Rangers in five games in the first round.
Boy was I wrong.
Cullen ended up being one of the best off-season signings in the entire league. He contributed 16 goals and 16 assists, became one of the most reliable faceoff men on the Penguins roster and showed a chameleon-like ability to blend in wherever he was needed in the lineup.
He was the fourth line center. He spent time playing on the wing with both Crosby and Malkin and proved to be a valuable penalty killer.
He was the kind of player that the Penguins had been looking for over the course of seven long years since they’d last won the Stanley Cup. He was downright Bill Guerin-esque, which speaks to his ability to harness what Guerin brought to the 2009 Stanley Cup-winning club after his trade deadline arrival.
He did it on the ice, but his biggest contribution might have come off of it.
Cullen was instrumental in the development of both Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl, mid-season call-ups that helped the Penguins win their fourth championship. Each player credited Cullen with their ability to deal with the pressure and to play in any capacity in which they were needed.
Rust specifically raved about his time playing on Cullen’s wing during a stretch of March games which helped him deal with all that came his way while playing with Malkin during the playoffs.
There were multiple times during the regular season that Cullen could be seen working with players between practice drills, sometimes after practice. In the case of now-departed winger Sergei Plotnikov, he took time to diagram situations on a dry erase board to help alleviate the language barrier between the two when they were paired by former coach Mike Johnston.
It’s no coincidence that Plotnikov’s most impressive stretch of hockey came during that time playing with Cullen.
Cullen will turn 40 on Nov. 2, but that number isn’t as important as his 1,294 NHL games, two Stanley Cups and ability to function as an extension of the coaching staff. He commands his teammates respect and has the ear of the captain, his alternates and everyone in the dressing room.
All of the things outlined earlier are what pushed the Penguins to put his name on a new one-year contract last week, while the league was consumed with #VeseyWatch. Those reasons and the fact that he played a key role in helping get them get back to the top of the mountain and in possession of Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The graybeard contributed four goals and six points and was on the ice in most high profile defensive situations during all 24 postseason games and the Penguins are hoping he’ll help them play well into June again this season.
There is no second guessing this time, as Cullen makes it 19 of 20 Penguins players who were on the ice for the Cup-clinching game in San Jose returning to Pittsburgh this season. His signing, along with most of the club returning, gives the Penguins the best chance at repeating in recent NHL history.
Somehow it feels like with Cullen in the fold, that just might happen.