Matt Cullen turned 38 years old at the beginning of last season, his second with the Predators – which he went into thinking could realistically be his last one in the league.
“I really tried to enjoy it and make the most of it and take nothing for granted,” Cullen said.
After the year ended, Cullen returned to his native Minnesota – which is where he realized he wanted to continue to play and felt like he still had a lot to offer. Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford agreed, and subsequently agreed to terms with the 17-year NHL veteran on a one-year deal worth $800,000 on Thursday.
“I just think of it as a gift, I really do,” Cullen said of joining the Penguins. “I trained hard all summer and was just keeping an open mind to the idea of playing again, and when this opportunity came up, I was so excited. I just feel like it’s a great fit.”
Cullen has played 1,212 NHL games split between Nashville, Anaheim, Florida, the New York Rangers, Ottawa, Minnesota and Carolina – where he won a Stanley Cup under Rutherford in 2006. Having the chance to win again is incredibly important to Cullen at this point in his career, and the biggest reason why he chose to come to Pittsburgh.
“I know I’m getting near the end of my career. You don’t get many opportunities to make a run at a Stanley Cup,” Cullen said. “Having been there once before, I understand how hard it is to get there and I’d just love to get another chance at it. I’ve lost to Pittsburgh twice in the playoffs (in 2009 with Carolina and 2010 with Ottawa), so it’ll be fun to be on their side going after it instead of chasing them around,” he added with a laugh.
Cullen is looking forward to being reunited with Rutherford, someone he said has had a huge impact on his career and has been “so good” to him.
“It’s nice to go somewhere where you know them and they know you and there’s a familiarity and a comfort level there,” Cullen said. “It’s nice when they know your game and know what you’re capable of and where you’re best used.”
For Rutherford, that’s on the fourth line with the potential to move up if needed.
“He’s a player that can play center or left wing,” Rutherford said. “He’ll play an important role on our fourth line in faceoffs, killing penalties, and he’s also a player that’s capable on the short term of moving up into the top-nine if we need him.”
Cullen’s versatility will be key, especially since Eric Fehr may not be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from from June 3 elbow surgery that has a recovery time of 4-6 months. While Rutherford said that they likely would have added Cullen regardless, the move is even more important now with Fehr out.
(Note: Rutherford said the day he added Fehr and Nick Bonino that they had room to add another forward if they wanted to, and he emphasized that today. “This is not a signing that really affects our cap,” he said. “Whether it was going to be Matt Cullen or another player, (the fourth-line center) would be making somewhere between $600-$800,000.”)
“My versatility is probably one of the biggest contributions I can make,” said Cullen, who said he's equally comfortable at both center and wing. “I think that in today’s game with the intensity of an 82-game schedule – the injuries and the ups and the downs and the different matchups – to have guys that can move around and be flexible and play center or wing or play up or down your lineup depending on where you need them, that’s an important tool to have.”
Off the ice, Rutherford loves Cullen’s leadership qualities and locker room presence.
“Looking at the big picture and our ultimate goal, to have a guy that knows what it takes to play on a team that can win a championship – and I know him personally as to how good he is with other players when they’re going through tough times or with younger players – is important. He’s always been a guy that takes time to help his teammates.”
That’s something Cullen learned from the veteran players who mentored him early in his career.
“I smile whenever I think back to the different guys that have helped me along the way. Rod Brind’Amour and Dougie Weight come to mind immediately,” said Cullen, who explained that those two taught him he needed to continually adapt and improve his game if he wanted any longevity in this league.
“I know how much I appreciated that from those guys and how much it’s meant to me and how it’s allowed me to play for as long as I have, so I feel like it’s important for me to sort of give that back to the young guys,” Cullen said. “I try to do that as much as possible and at the same time, try to stay out of their way a little bit too and not bug them (laughs). But I try as much as I can to help them get better and help with some little pointers and things like that.”
Cullen’s wife Bridget and three sons will be moving to Pittsburgh with him, and the entire family can’t wait to get here.
“Our three boys are 8, 6 and 5 and kind of hockey crazy,” Cullen said. “I couldn’t leave them behind if I wanted to. They’re dying to come. I’m just dying to get there and get started.”