Throughout the 2006-07 season, the Hurricanes constantly struggled with recapturing the magic of their Stanley Cup run only one year earlier.
There was always something missing, something not quite right that prevented the team from putting up a stronger defense of their championship.
With Tuesday’s re-acquisition of center Matt Cullen from the New York Rangers, the Hurricanes feel like they have taken a big step towards making things right again.
Cullen, along with defenseman Aaron Ward, was one of the only core players to leave the team in the summer of 2006. Eric Staal, Cam Ward and all the heroes of that year’s Cup triumph were still around, but the void left on the third line by Cullen’s departure via free agency was never truly filled, despite the effort-by-committee from Eric Belanger, Trevor Letowski and Josef Vasicek.
According to Hurricanes President and General Manager Jim Rutherford, who inquired about Cullen immediately upon hearing that New York had signed centers Chris Drury and Scott Gomez on the first day of free agency, Cullen’s versatility and the intangibles he brings are what made him so difficult to replace.
“We talk about him being the third line center, but he does more than that,” said Rutherford. “He plays the point on the power play, he jumps up into other lines when we need a player, and it’s his speed – I think we lost some speed in our forwards when Matt wasn’t there. We’re going go have a lot of speed.
“He fits into our team real well,” Rutherford added. “He’s very likable, has good leadership and makes other players around him better. He’s got a great work ethic. He’s a good fit.”
As for Cullen himself, who set career highs in goals (25) and points (49) in his lone year with the Hurricanes, he said he couldn’t be happier to come back to the place where he enjoyed his biggest successes.
“I’m very excited to be coming back,” said Cullen, who was voted the Carolina Hurricanes Booster Club’s Fan Favorite in 2005-06. “I was thrilled when I found out I was going to Carolina. I’ve said this to a lot of people now, but it feels like I’m going home and I can’t wait to get there.”
Besides filling the positional hole on the team’s third line, Cullen hopes he can also help recreate some of the chemistry that helped the team come together and win the Stanley Cup despite being picked to finish near the bottom of the league before the start of that season.
“That’s something that we had that set us apart from other teams,” said Cullen. “We had such a close-knit group of guys, and I’m really excited to get back in the mix and be a part of things again. When you get to a game seven situation, I think that [chemistry] makes a big difference.”
Cullen didn’t enjoy quite as much offensive success last season with the Rangers, but was used in a different role than he was in Carolina. Cullen said that experience, while difficult at times, will be beneficial in the long run.
“I killed a lot more penalties and I wasn’t put in quite as many offensive situations as I was in Carolina, so it was big change for me and it was a tough adjustment, but at the same time I think it helped me to improve as a player,” said Cullen. “I think I’m a better player now than when I left. That to me is really exciting.”
Heading into this year’s free agency period, Rutherford had made the continuing search for Cullen’s replacement a high priority. Once he saw the expensive contracts that were being handed out around the league, however, it seemed like a trade would be the best solution.
The perfect trade opportunity came along quickly when New York signed expensive contracts for Drury and Gomez, which put the Rangers too close to the salary cap for comfort. Rutherford then saw his chance to bring in the ideal Cullen replacement – Cullen himself.
“When he left, there was a void and we tried a couple of different guys to fill that void and it didn’t work exactly the way we wanted,” said Rutherford. “The best way to do it is to just fill the void with him.”
Cullen returns to find the Hurricanes team remarkably similar to when he left. According to him, that means there’s no reason this year’s team shouldn’t be able to get right back to where they were two years ago.
“When you look through our forward lines in particular, we have a lot of strength and a lot of speed,” said Cullen. “We have depth in our attack, which I would say was probably our strongest point from when we won the Stanley Cup. We had three or four lines that would just come at you in waves and people would talk about how we were so hard to play against because we just kept coming at you.
“I think that we sort of have that now, and that’s what sets us apart from a lot of other teams,” he continued. “It’s exciting for me to come back because I feel like we can get right back to where we were. I’ve talked to a lot of the other guys over the last couple of days, and they’ve said the same thing.”
In addition playing on the third line, Cullen, along with that of fellow off-season acquisition Jeff Hamilton, will also see significant time playing the point on the power play. Rutherford said that takes some of the pressure off of the team to acquire a defenseman who could do the same.
“It certainly doesn’t give us any urgency to add a defenseman, but if we could add a puck-moving defenseman, it would help our team not only on the power play but five-on-five as well,” he said. “If someone comes along, that’s something that we’ll look at, but we don’t have the same urgency now.”
That points to the roster being mostly intact going into training camp, which Cullen now anxiously awaits.
is a special place for me, and in that regard it feels like going home,” he said.
“I can’t wait to get back together with the old family.”