Matt Cullen didn’t know what to expect when he signed a one-year deal with Pittsburgh last August.
It ended up turning out, as he said, being “one of those things that you wouldn’t even dare dream of.”
After lifting the Stanley Cup over his head at 39 years old following his 18th NHL season, it would have been completely understandable if he had decided it was time to hang them up.
And Cullen did consider that, saying he went home after the season and took a lot of time to think his future over. But after careful consideration, he realized he wasn’t done.
“My gut just wanted me to play, and my family was fully on board,” he said. “They love living (in Pittsburgh). It was a lot easier of a decision than I thought it was going to be. But I wanted to give it some time. So we took plenty of time to make sure.”
That means right now, he's satisfied with where he's at both emotionally and physically as he continues to train for the upcoming season despite the short summer and having a few more miles on the body than most.
"I’ve been really happy with it," Cullen said of his training. "That’s one side of the game that I’ve always enjoyed. I’ve always really kind of dove into that, studied it, and really enjoyed it. So, for me, I’ve been training and I’m feeling good. I’m happy about the way my body feels and where I’m at at this point. You know, now having everything done and being signed, and comfortable and settled, it makes it a lot easier to go to the rink to skate and work out right now."
Thinking back on Cullen’s season, what comes to mind is this…
- How much the coaches relied on him defensively, especially deep into the playoffs. At that point, it felt like they sent him over the boards for every important faceoff, particularly in the Pens’ own zone. He was also such a fixture on the penalty kill. For example, remember when the Pens were given three straight delay of game penalties in Game 6 against the Caps (Yeah, I know – how could we forget?) Cullen was one of the players tasked with getting Pittsburgh through that stressful sequence.
- How impressive his hands and speed are. His ability to score clutch goals was fun to watch. He had the game-winner in two of Pittsburgh’s four wins against the New York Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs after notching four game-winners during the regular season, his highest total in 10 years.
- How fantastic of a locker room presence and veteran leader he was. Cullen might be the nicest man any of us have ever met, and embraces the responsibility of mentoring younger guys while also using his experience to be there for everyone else as well.
- That’s not to mention the impressive overall numbers he put up: tallying 16 goals, 16 assists and 32 points in all 82 games. Cullen’s 16 goals were his most since 2009 and he was one of just three Penguins to play all 82 games.
All of that meant he probably could have gotten more term or more money elsewhere. Instead, he chose to return to the Penguins for one more year with just a slight raise – signing for $1 million after making $800,00 last season.
“Pittsburgh was always the No. 1 priority,” he said. “It was something I’d hoped to get done kind of quietly right away, but word gets out and a lot of other teams became involved. But Pittsburgh was my No. 1 priority the entire time and I made that very clear from the beginning that’s where I wanted to go.
“It was just a matter of working everything out. It took a little bit longer than probably any of us would have long expected. Sometimes that’s how it works and it was always one of those things where it felt like it was just a matter of time before it got done.”
Cullen signing with the Penguins means the team is now entering next season with the exact same group of forwards they had during their playoff run last season – the run that ended with a Stanley Cup.
Overall, the majority of the lineup is the same, which has Cullen excited about what this team could accomplish next season.
“It’s super exciting,” he said. “That factored into my decision a lot. It doesn’t happen often that you win the Cup, but also doesn’t happen that you have virtually the same team back to try to go after it again the next year. We have a really special group and I really, really enjoyed being part of the group.
“It was just a really fun season. To come back with the same group and to go after it again is really exciting. We all go into it knowing there are going to be challenges and it’s not easy to repeat. But to get a chance to go after it again with almost the same group, I mean, that’s pretty cool.”
Just as thrilled as Cullen is his wife Bridget and their three sons.
“My boys were so excited,” he laughed. “They went and ran and got their Pittsburgh gear out of their rooms. I think they are ready to go there tomorrow if we could. It’s just so fun. That was something that made the experience so fun last year was going through it with my boys around, involved so much. They have a special bond with Pittsburgh already. So for them, going back to Pittsburgh is almost like going home. It’s pretty cool. It makes me really happy to be able to go back and do another year there.”