|Matt Cullen has thrived during his second stint with the Hurricanes.
Even with the additions of two of the game’s premier centers, Cullen figured there had to still be room for him in the Blueshirts’ lineup, not to mention under the salary cap.
“As soon as they signed I heard rumors that I’d be dealt, but then I heard the contrary so I started to prepare for another season in New York,” Cullen told NHL.com. “Sure enough, that’s when I got the call.”
If Cullen could have handpicked the one city he’d rather play in than New York, he would have pointed to Raleigh, N.C., where his heart may have been all along after winning the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.
“Winning the Cup here makes it a special place,” Cullen said.
So, when the Rangers and Hurricanes finalized the deal on July 17 that sent Cullen back down Tobacco Road in exchange for Andrew Hutchinson, Joe Barnes and a third-round draft pick in 2008, Cullen truly felt he was “coming back home.”
Unlike coming to New York, there was no culture shock going back to Carolina.
“I didn’t necessarily want to get traded, but when I found out it was Carolina I was thrilled,” he said. “I loved playing here, and it’s basically the same team that I left. I felt really lucky to get back here and get a crack at it with this group again.”
Cullen joined the Hurricanes after the lockout and was their third-line center during the Cup run, scoring a career-high 25 goals and 49 points in the process. He added 18 points during the playoffs, which turned him into a coveted free agent, one the Rangers scooped up thanks to their four-year contract offer worth over $11 million.
Cullen came to the Big Apple expecting to be one of the Rangers’ top two pivots, but the chemistry never turned out to be quite right.
“To me they just looked at a guy who just won the Stanley Cup and they needed a center so they gave him a good contract to get him,” said Ray Whitney, who for the majority of this season has played on Cullen’s right wing, “but they didn’t really know that much about him in terms of what he does and what kind of players to play him with.”
Cullen himself admits it took longer than expected for him to get comfortable, both on and off the ice.
He came to the Rangers after playing a full season in Carolina coach Peter Laviolette’s up-tempo, push-the-puck, risk-taking style, which allows him to use his speed and skill to create offensive chances even off the forecheck. But his offensive opportunities were limited in New York largely because Tom Renney coaches his team to play a more sound game against the rush.
Cullen, whose goal total dropped from 25 in Carolina to 16 in New York, was also used sparingly on the Rangers’ power play, and never on the point. Now he’s one of Carolina’s top power play guys and is being used almost exclusively on the point. As a result, he’s flourishing again and is on pace for a career year. He leads the Canes with 24 assists, which is tied for 10th in the entire League. He also has six goals, including four on the power play.
“I’m lucky to be in a place where I’m allowed to do that, to just let it all out,” Cullen said. “You get a lot of freedom offensively here.”
The adjustments off the ice were also distracting.
Cullen’s wife, Bridget, had just given birth to their first child, Brooks. And, as a result of the short summer due to the Cup run he didn’t have time to get settled in his new environment before jumping on to the ice in training camp.
“There were a million things,” Cullen said.
Cullen added that the distractions faded toward the end of the season, that he did gain a sense of comfort in the Big Apple, which is why he was looking forward to his second year in New York… until he got the call.
“We didn’t think we had a chance to get him going into the offseason, but once the Rangers made those deals for the centers it made obvious sense for both sides,” Carolina General Manager Jim Rutherford said. “I don’t think he ever really wanted to go anywhere.”
Cullen said the news of his trade was embraced by his former, and now current Carolina teammates.
“I got a million phone calls and text messages. It really was a lot like coming home,” Cullen said. “It felt like I had never left. The one year just went by fast. It was a blur. All of a sudden I was back here.”
Once again, he’s proving to be a steal.
“I can tell you this, we missed Matt last year,” Laviolette said. “His brain, his hands, the puck and the stick are all on the same page, and it’s very quick. I think he’s a strong third-line center only because we have (Eric) Staal and (Rod) Brind’Amour.”