The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Cullen is 40 years old, and he’s been in the league since 1997. He’s been places. He’s seen things. Cullen has played for eight teams total, including all four of the teams currently left in the playoffs. Thirty-nine-year-old defenseman Mark Streit joked that his assist on Cullen’s tally in Game 5 against the Ottawa Senators made it “the oldest goal in NHL history.”
Guesses are that Cullen plans to retire after this season, which would leave a hole in the center of the Penguins’ fourth line. Luckily, these playoffs are providing a solution to this upcoming loss, and that answer is named Carter Rowney.
Rowney’s Playoff Success
Rowney won the first star, the batting helmet, and media attention for his three-point performance in the Penguins’ 7-0 Game 5 blowout, but his impact on the Penguins began long before this game. He’s played intermittently throughout these playoffs, earning a regular roster spot when called up in place of Tom Kuhnhackl in Game 7 of the series against the Washington Capitals. He didn’t tally a point in that game, but he was a solid addition to the lineup. He brought speed and aggressive checks to the game, both of which the Penguins desperately needed at the end of a very shaky series.
⭐️⭐️⭐️ = 🐧🐧🐧 pic.twitter.com/Hda8KSUtGh
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) May 21, 2017
Rowney is a good fit for the Penguins for several reasons. For one, he’s fast. The Penguins are best when they can rely on their speed game, as they demonstrated in Sunday’s Game 5, and Rowney fits into that very well. He also adds something to this game with his hits.
The Penguins have often struggled to match other teams’ hits; in Game 5, there was finally a hitter on every line that Sullivan rolled out, and Rowney was that guy for the fourth line. The Penguins need players like him that are willing to muscle it out for the puck and answer hits from bigger teams. (Fun fact: at the beginning of this season, the Penguins were, on average, the fourth-lightest team in the league. Big hitters help make up for that.) Cullen averaged about 0.50 hits per game this regular season; Rowney averaged 2.3. This is a definite boost to the Penguins’ bottom line.
Rowney’s Cap Hit
Perhaps the most significant reason that Rowney is going to be important for the Penguins is his salary. Rowney is already signed with the club for another year. Because this is his rookie season, he requires the lowest cap hit of any forward currently signed for the 2017-18 season at just over $600,000 on the year. That’s about 0.8 percent of the Penguins’ salary cap. That kind of money for a reliable fourth-line anchor? That’s a deal the Penguins can definitely get behind.
If this really is Cullen’s last season, Rowney seems to be setting himself up to patch over that hole in the roster. Rowney has played in every game of the series against the Senators since that convincing Game 7 performance against the Capitals, and he’s getting real ice time with an average of about 15 minutes per game.
Last year’s playoffs showed the Penguins just what depth they had in their ranks in the forms of Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust. This year, it’s Rowney and Jake Guentzel that are being exposed as inexpensive but crucial parts of the team. Just like the 2016 playoffs made Sheary and Rust into core parts of the Penguins’ lineup that next season, the 2017 playoffs are once again showing the Penguins who they expect to rely on when the regular season rolls around again.
Rowney, and of course Guentzel, are coming up clutch now and can expect to see increased ice time and expectations in the 2017-18 season. So here’s to Rowney, the 28-year-old rookie—and new dad—who is proving himself with a vengeance.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.