When considering the prospect of retaining a meaningful member of a Stanley Cup champion team, concern for the bottom six forwards are perhaps scrutinized with a bit more gravitas than might be applicable. A key talking point in Pittsburgh right now is what to do with Matt Cullen. He’s a solid two-way center who, for a player of his caliber, had an average regular season. Sure, he came up big in the playoffs. He infused his line with age-defying energy, especially in the second round against Washington where he scored an important goal.
If Cullen was an unrestricted free agent of average age, he had a season notable enough to earn a bit more money on his next contract than he ought to receive. But he’s not an unrestricted free agent of average age. In fact, he’s nearly forty years old, and that’s something awfully important to consider when attempting to repeat as Cup champions.
We Hardly Knew Ye…
When Cullen signed his contract one year ago, it was a team-friendly, calculated risk. At the time, I was not a fan of the move. There were plenty of bottom six centers available in the farm system. Oskar Sundqvist’s name kept coming up in discussions regarding the fourth line center position. At the same time, GM Jim Rutherford was receiving some serious criticism regarding his poor first year on the job. There was a lot to question.
Why sign an aging center when there are perfectly good, young and talented centers in the AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins? Why stifle the development of those potential centers by keeping them buried in the minors? Is our aging GM even able to handle the rigors of building a Cup contender without looking to old, familiar faces?
But those questions aside, for one year, and Rutherford got it right. A roll of the dice on a thirty-nine year old winger yielded fruit, despite odds suggesting otherwise. Our one year rendezvous with Matt Cullen paid off, and we’re now free to move on.
The Harsh Truth
Keeping a forty year old center on the roster for the 2016-17 season just can’t be done. It shouldn’t, and hopefully it won’t. Things catch up with you when you age. Cullen has done it gracefully, but not all things can last. He’s an energy guy who is an important penalty killer. Should he suddenly slow down or if he were to get hurt and couldn’t play at the level that we’ve become accustomed to, he becomes a liability very quickly. Yes, injuries can happen to anyone. The same can be said about fatigue. I like to believe that if either were likely to occur, that it would be the elder statesman who’s most likely to endure one or the other.
Then there’s the cap consideration. Traditionally, elder, role players are aware of what they want and where they want to be before free agency hits. I find it surprising that there are few (if any) reports that Cullen is involved in negotiations. Local radio reports suggest that Cullen wants another year with the Pens. If that were the primary motivating factor, why isn’t it done yet? These types of deals usually construct themselves, especially given Cullen’s age and recent salary. With the Pens under the salary cap by just about a million dollars, there doesn’t seem to be much room to accommodate Cullen’s desire to be paid well enough to return.
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, on trying to re-sign C Matt Cullen: “We’ll do our best to get a contract done that makes sense for both sides.”
— Dave Molinari (@MolinariPG) June 28, 2016
In an era where players of all sports have greater longevity, Cullen has every right to do what makes him happy. If he’s primed for another season in the NHL, he should do everything he can to make that happen. But for a forty year old who will occupy an important role as an energy guy and a premier penalty killer, I’d feel better about handing that to an Oskar Sundqvist with the promise of further development, rather than hoping to catch lightning in a bottle two years in a row with the same guy. You know what they say: out with the old…