Pittsburgh Penguins: Matt Cullen Proving to be Offseason Steal

The Pittsburgh Penguins picked up forward Matt Cullen during free agency last summer.  Though not many fans had high expectations for the aging center, Cullen has proved his worth over and over again.

Full disclosure: I love Matt Cullen as a player. Watching the Nashville Predators last season, I liked how he fit in with the team as a lower-line center and face-off master. When the Pittsburgh Penguins snagged him up, I was really excited.

Most of the other people I talked to were just really confused instead.

“Who on earth is Matt Cullen?”

Oh, this kind of older fourth-liner, he looks a bit like a smaller version of Luke Danes from “Gilmore Girls,” he played for Nashville last season – and they’d heard enough.

Let’s take a look at the numbers, though. 

In his first season with the Predators, 2013-2014, he put up 39 points in 77 games played.  In the second year of his contract, he managed 27 points between the regular season and playoffs – a total of 68 games played.  

Not too shabby for a guy on his fourth NHL team in his late thirties. 

Jan 2, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Matt Cullen (7) steps on to the ice after being named a star of the game against the New York Islanders at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Additionally, his two-year contract with Nashville had a cap hit of 3.5 million dollars – oof.  Compared to similar players, that’s a lot of dough.

For the Penguins, who are always sitting dangerously close to the salary cap, there was no way that was doable. If he had asked for that much, there’s no chance he would be in Pittsburgh right now.

Luckily, he didn’t. His one-year contract with the Penguins only has a cap hit of $800,000. Brian Dumoulin has the same hit, and Olli Maatta accounts for scarcely more. The only players who have less lucrative contracts than Cullen are – with the exception of backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff – perennially bouncing up and down between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre. 

In 48 games played this season, Cullen has 13 points and a +3.  Given how often the lines were changed and the various wingers he had to play with, along with a coaching shakeup and system overhaul, that’s decent.  Plus, he wasn’t brought in to challenge the big guns’ scoring prowess, and we all know that.

He was a depth acquisition, and that’s what exactly what he’s useful for.  When other Penguins centers Eric Fehr and Nick Bonino got hurt, Cullen moved up and down the lineup to fill any gaps.

His years of experience in the league also makes him a valuable asset in the bottom six, whose lines are often some rotation of younger call-ups from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.  While many of them now have NHL experience due to the injuries that repeatedly plague their NHL affiliate, it’s obviously nowhere near what the 39-year-old Cullen has.

Nashville’s coaching staff long had a focus on faceoffs, despite the Barry Trotz administration already being on its way out just when Cullen came in.  A lot of Cullen’s value does stem from his ability to win faceoffs.  Honestly, if the rest of his game completely fell apart and the Penguins were in a situation where he could only take faceoffs, that would still be pretty effective. 

In must-win faceoff situations, such as last-minute comeback attempts in the Penguins’ zone, Cullen should be the go-to guy.  In the playoffs with Nashville last year, I remember him coming in clutch many times when the Chicago Blackhawks were on desperation offensives.  Should the Penguins make the playoffs this year, his talent on the dot will be severely needed.

He can score, he’s a good net-front presence, he’s wicked on faceoffs. For $800,000, you couldn’t ask for more.