Matt Cullen returns to Penguins, hopes for new ending to career
With a resume that includes more than 1,400 games over 20 seasons and three Stanley Cup rings, the story of Matt Cullen’s career is a long and fascinating tale.
He didn’t like the way the last chapter was shaping up, so he’s writing a new one.
The 41-year-old Cullen unexpectedly returned to the Penguins on Sunday, signing a one-year deal worth $650,000 on the opening day of free agency.
“It’s a pretty cool opportunity at my age to come back and have a chance at making another run with this team,” said Cullen, a member of championship teams with the Penguins in 2016 and ’17.
When Cullen signed with the Minnesota Wild last summer, it was supposed to be his swan song. He would play one final season in his home state, allowing his wife, Bridget, and three sons under the age of 12 to begin to put down roots where they would spend their father’s post-hockey days.
The season didn’t go as well as Cullen had hoped. He had 11 goals and 11 assists in 79 games, but he wasn’t counted on to play an important role. A few times, he slipped into healthy scratch territory. It left a sour taste in his mouth.
When Minnesota was ousted from the first round of the playoffs by Winnipeg, Cullen had time to consult with his family and mull over their future plans. He wanted to play one more year.
When the Penguins signed Riley Sheahan last Wednesday, rounding out a full complement of four centers, Cullen figured his chances of returning to Pittsburgh had evaporated.
He was wrong. General manager Jim Rutherford called the next morning.
“When the phone rang and it was Pittsburgh, it didn’t take a lot to decide,” Cullen said. “I had sort of decided a little bit before. It’s been enough time to know.”
It’s not hard to see why Rutherford called. He wanted to add some scoring balance to his bottom-six, and Cullen had 29 goals in two seasons during his previous stint with the Penguins. He also wanted to add a positive influence in the locker room, and Cullen always has been known as a high-character player.
“We lacked some leadership last year. We lost some really key guys,” Rutherford said. “We had hoped he’d come back last year. We also feel with the character of Jack Johnson and Matt Cullen going back in that room, we’re going to get some of that back.”
Cullen’s return also gives the Penguins lineup versatility. With five centers under contract, coach Mike Sullivan could move Cullen, Sheahan or Derick Brassard to the wing.
Cullen said he’s looking forward to playing in multiple spots in the lineup. He also said he’s looking forward to returning to a style of play that fits his game.
“We play an up-tempo, fast style of game that allows you to use your instincts and your skills in both ends of the ice,” Cullen said. “For me, that was a perfect fit.
“I really enjoy being used in all kinds of different situations. It allows me to use the skill set that I have and the experience I’ve gained throughout my career to its fullest. As a player, that’s what you want, right? You want to be challenged and pushed to your limit and allowed to use your strength to help your team.”
Most of all, though, he is looking forward to writing a new ending to the story of his career.
“I guess there’s still a lot of competitiveness in me, and I think there’s a little bit of me that wants to prove I can still play and be a difference maker,” Cullen said. “And along with that, my boys and Bridget are probably more competitive than I am. They’re in the same boat. They know what a special situation we have in Pittsburgh.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.