Three years ago at about this time Matt Cullen was 38-years old and pretty much assumed he would be retiring from the NHL. Coming off a less than great 2014-15 season with Nashville (7 goals in 62 games) he hadn’t much considered further options until an old boss in Jim Rutherford called him and wanted to sign him.
The rest, as they say is history. Cullen was a key 4th liner, important piece on the PK, great locker-room personality, character guy and helped the Penguins win two Stanley Cups in his two seasons in Pittsburgh. Can’t do any better than that.
So Cullen went home last summer, back to his roots in Minnesota to play for the Wild. A storybook ending to a wonderful late career renaissance. The only problem? Cullen didn’t fit in and had a bad season with the Wild. He was a healthy scratch and times. He asked the coach to play him more. He just didn’t seem to fit in.
A look at this chart and the one below stands to ask the question that Cullen will try to answer this year- is he too old now or is Pittsburgh just a better fit for him on the ice?
This shows us Cullen isn’t going to do a lot of zone exits, but that’s to be expected for a lower line checking center. Riley Sheahan, for example was a 28 in PossExits60 and a 33% in Possession Exit percentage. It’s really only the skill center that hunt pucks and are constantly around the play that do well in this metric. (Evgeni Malkin, unsurprisingly was an 82 and a 74% last year and Sidney Crosby was only a 50 in Exits but was at 86% when he did exit).
Therefore, Cullen’s real drop off was evidenced in an area such as zone entries. Is he quick enough, strong enough still to advance the puck consistently into the offensive zone and help establish possession? He was in 2016-17 with Pittsburgh but certainly wasn’t in 2017-18. This might be more team related than age. The Pens sure hope anyways.
Points wise and offensively, Cullen didn’t experience much of a drop at all last year (from Natural Stat Trick):
Cullen played 7 more games, but his 5v5 goals were slightly better (improved from 8 to 11) last season. Where he suffered was secondary assists falling from 6 with Pittsburgh to just two last year. Ideally getting away from weak players like Tyler Ennis, Daniel Winnik and Marcus Foligno will help here if more passing plays are made and goals scored by potential 4th liner teammates like Riley Sheahan, Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon.
If anything, Cullen had a big boost in individual Corsi, scoring chances and high danger scoring chances, suggesting that while he is a very old player, he still is about as effective as he’s been in recent seasons.
At first, I didn’t like the Matt Cullen signing all that much or think it necessary. However the data does paint a bit of a stronger picture. The Pens are betting the old boy still has a little left in the tank, and that some of his weaker moments last year were as a result of a bad fit (ironic for his hometown) and not because he’s too old to be effective.
The great scholar laureate of our time Jon Bon Jovi once posited that whom said one couldn’t go home? Last year at this time Matt Cullen thought that meant Minnesota. However, on the ice, his home in Pittsburgh may prove a better environment for a more fitting ending to an illustrious career.