Penguins Make an Inexpensive Mistake by Signing Cullen

The Pittsburgh Penguins have had a long and interesting year. Around 365 days ago, Ray Shero was their general manager and the average age of the team was 28. That was one of the reasons why critics had said the Penguins consistently failed in the playoffs. People called them “old and slow” and they knew this was the truth. Out went Shero and in came the veteran GM Jim Rutherford.

His first season was definitely an interesting one, it included many trades, countless injuries and a mismanaging of the salary cap. While the Penguins failed to hoist the Stanley Cup during his first year, it was clear the team was trending in the right direction. This offseason was even better, the team finally traded for a wing who matches the talent level of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, in Phil Kessel, and they traded away their overrated third line center Brandon Sutter for a king’s ransom.

The Penguins ‘Youth Movement’

At the end of the season Rutherford came out with a bold claim, he said he wants “four lines that can score.” Pittsburgh was well on its way to achieving that, and in my mind the team had completed its quest. However, the signing of the 38-year-old center Matt Cullen raises some significant questions about how the Penguins are building a team.

Is the notion of a “youth movement” something they continue to tell the public to appease fans or is it something they actually believe in? The current average age of the Penguins, including the addition of Cullen, is 27.85 years old, which is the sixth oldest roster in the league. The Penguins had done a good job of seemingly giving a chance to one of their young forwards which they “remain high on” and “see legitimate NHL potential in.” Prior to signing Cullen, there would have been one or two forward positions up for grabs on the roster and the candidates that could have filled these roles are Scott Wilson, Conor Sheary, Oskar Sundqvist or Bryan Rust.

The most confusing thing is that Rutherford is trying to take the model of the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he fails to see the one crucial ingredient, youth and speed. The average age of the Lightning is 26.54 years old – the seventh youngest team in the NHL. There’s a very good reason why Tampa was able to play such a grueling playoff run and still have plenty left in the tank while facing the Chicago Blackhawks. I recognize that the Lightning did not win, but their formula is excellent, it’s what the Penguins were when they won the Cup back in 2008-09.

Fans have often complained about Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and Rob Scuderi all making too much money and slowing down dramatically towards the end of the season. What makes you think that a 38-year old will still have his legs by the time the playoffs come around? Cullen isn’t a generational talent like Jaromir Jagr, who’s displayed the ability to keep playing at a very high level despite age. He is what he is; a third or fourth line center.

Now I realize that the Penguins are going young on defense and that’s a very good thing, but that’s only because they have to.

“I think we’ll keep all options on the table in that regard,” Rutherford said. “But I don’t want to suggest I’m giving up on some of these older players, because they can still contribute.”

While Rutherford said that he wants his team to get faster and younger, finding wingers able to fully exploit the talents of centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will be his top priority.

Directly from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette.

A youth movement won’t be a problem on defense, if only because the Penguins will have no choice.

From ESPN’s David Perron. The Penguins have committed 23.98% of their salary cap to defense, the third lowest in the league and that is accounting for Scuderi and his $3.375 million dollar contract. If you subtract that cap hit, since he won’t be playing many games next season the Penguins have spent $12.74 million on defense, and $7.25 of that is in Kris Letang. It’s certainly not a sustainable model as Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin all will be due for pay raises if they continue their strong performances.

But the most surprising thing about this signing is that both owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle have known and recognized the need for speed.

Lemieux: Yeah. You need speed. Look at Montreal, the way they’re built. They have some smaller forwards, but they’re all speedy and they’ve got grit, and they’ve got character. That’s probably what we’d like to have.

DK: Is that why a little guy like Brian Gibbons looked effective in these playoffs?

Lemieux: I think that’s where the league is going now, with more speed. But of course, you need the grit and character along with the speed. If you have those, you’ve got a pretty good chance at being successful.

Burkle: On and on and on. So we haven’t given those younger guys a chance. We haven’t gotten that right mix on the ice.

From an interview Dejan Kovacevic did with ownership before Rutherford was hired as general manager.

The signing of Cullen is an analytically driven move and that all his numbers are great for just $800,000, but that still doesn’t make me feel any better about this move. And it’s not about blocking a young forward from the roster, because let’s be honest the Penguins don’t have a lot of high ceiling prospects in the system. It’s about the Penguins saying one thing and doing another. There are serious concerns whether Cullen can keep his play up as he gets near the end of his career. Look at a player like Brendan Morrow during the Lightning’s playoff run he appeared in 24 games, posted zero points and was a minus two skater. Not only was the stat line not pretty, but he looked his age, he was slow and did not fit with the rest of the fourth line, and he is only 36.

Most of the fanbase likes this move because the Penguins are finally using advanced analytics to assist in decision making, but there are things that stats can’t account for. If you’re going to complain about having players like Kunitz, Dupuis and Scuderi around, how can you think that bringing in an older player will do the team any good? I’m in the minority on this one and that’s fine, but consider what you’re celebrating right now, come playoff time Cullen’s legs probably will be gone and he will look his age.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave your comments below or tweet me anytime @MPityk