There were times, Jassen Cullimore admitted last week, when he wondered if his career might be over.
Three weeks into the NHL season, Cullimore was a man without a team, working out alone in his hometown of Port Dover, Ontario, and wondering if the phone would ring.
“It was mostly just hope,” said the 12-year veteran. “You’re hoping there’s a team out there who might be interested. There were teams that were calling, but no one was really jumping.”
But Cullimore’s career has been revived this year in Florida. The 6-5, 244-pound defenseman currently leads the team with a plus-17 and has been one of the team’s strongest defensemen since signing a one-year deal with the Panthers back on Oct. 26.
Consider: Cullimore played 24:32 in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over the Thrashers. Only Jay Bouwmeester played more than Cullimore.
“I think when we picked up Jassen we had four defensemen on the shelf,” recalled GM and coach Jacques Martin. “We were stuck, really.”
Now Cullimore has gone from a man without a team to one of the Panthers top four defensemen.
“There are times when you look back and think about what happened, not having a team and skating by myself for a month to try and stay in shape, and thinking my career might be over,” Cullimore, 35, said. “But I try not to dwell on that now because you don’t want to be satisfied with what you have or what you’ve done.”
Cullimore, who began his career in 1994-95 in Vancouver, spent seven seasons in Tampa and helped the Lightning in 2004 to the Stanley Cup. After spending the previous two seasons in Chicago, Cullimore was traded in June to Montreal. After being bought out of his contract, Cullimore spent the preseason with the Red Wings before being released.
“Detroit was easy for me because it was close to my home and I could drive,” Cullimore said. “We could have basically, I imagine, gone to any team and said, ‘Listen, we’ll come on a tryout.’ No team is going to turn you down for that. It was the fact I was looking to get a contract and there were none open.”
That changed when the Panthers blue line was hit by injuries, specifically to Noah Welch and Steve Montador. Suddenly, Cullimore got a call from the Panthers to do a conditioning stint with Rochester of the American Hockey League before heading south to Sunrise.
Cullimore quickly stepped into a prominent role on the Panther blue line.
“The thing about Jassen is he’s always been a smart defenseman,” Martin said. “He’s really come on and done a great job for us and he’s been one of our top defensemen the last couple months.
“He’s a veteran player who plays within his limitations. He reads the game really well and puts himself in good position on the ice.”
Cullimore said if you don’t have good positioning, “you better be fast and quick to recover.”
“I’m not exactly slow, though I’ve been pegged a little with that. I feel like I can still skate, but a big part is not putting yourself in a position where you have to rely on that. You have to be in position, play the angles, be in the passing lanes and shooting lanes, and do those kinds of things.”
Along with his ability to read the game, Cullimore said his off-season program probably helped him when the Panthers did call on him.
“Physically, over the summer I changed my workout program,” he said. “It’s a new NHL, or so they say, so I changed my conditioning. I did a lot more speed work. I worked with a trainer who has worked with triathletes and marathon runners. I sort of worked on that aspect more and didn’t lift as many weights. So it was more about speed and quickness. When I went to camp in Detroit, I was the lightest I had been in seven, eight years. Having that conditioning really helped me.”
When asked what he might be doing if the Panthers or another team hadn’t called him, Cullimore replied; “I don’t know. It’s one of those things where you’re supposed to have something in the back of your mind, something when you’re done playing. But I really didn’t.”
It’s a safe bet Cullimore doesn’t have to worry about a backup plan off his current season. Not only is Cullimore enjoying this year, but he’s feeling good about the next few years to come.
“Things are looking up for me personally as far as next year and continuing to play,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is my confidence. Mentally, I think I have no only one more year but a few more years left. I probably feel better now, looking back, than I ever have. Hopefully, I can keep going.”