Editor’s note: Beat writer Jonathan Bombulie will make a series of Penguins predictions leading up to the start of training camp Sept. 14.
How many goals will the ageless Matt Cullen score this season?
A. Single digits.
While Cullen has stayed remarkably effective past his 40th birthday, this is a fight he will lose eventually. Every player does. In fact, only six players in the history of the NHL have scored double-digit goals in a season past their 42nd birthday – Gordie Howe, Jaromir Jagr, Mark Messier, Mark Recchi, Teemu Selanne and Igor Larionov. All six are in the Hall of Fame. Cullen scored 13 goals with the Penguins in 2016-17, but the difference between 40 and 42 isn’t insignificant. Plus, after signing Cullen and Derek Grant, the Penguins have a crowded bottom six. It will be difficult for Cullen to play the 77 games or so he’s averaged over the past three seasons.
B. Between 10 and 12.
Becoming one of seven players in NHL history to score 10 goals at age 42 shouldn’t be too difficult for Cullen because he’s already one of 10 NHL players to score at least 10 goals at age 41. Last season wasn’t the easiest for Cullen. He enjoyed being back in his home state with his wife and sons, but the on-ice transition to the Minnesota Wild was difficult. He played a limited role, even slipping into healthy scratch territory once. Still, he managed to light the lamp 11 times, which is a testament to his amazing consistency. He’s never had a shots-per-game average lower than 1.23 in his career. If that continues, he’ll get at least 100 shots, and if about 10 percent of them go in, bingo.
C. More than 12.
It might seem crazy to predict a surge in offensive production for a player of Cullen’s age, but it’s really not. For one thing, coach Mike Sullivan trusts him enough to use him in any situation. It’s not likely he’ll be relegated to fourth-line duty with a minutes-per-game average in single digits. In fact, late in close games, Cullen is likely to play more rather than less because of his responsible defensive game. He’ll get enough time on ice to produce. Beyond that, because he’s an excellent skater, Cullen’s game agrees with the Penguins’ up-tempo style of play. He scored seven goals for Nashville the season before he came to the Penguins. He scored 11 for Minnesota last year. In between, in two years with the Penguins, he averaged 14.5 goals. No reason to think he can’t approach that figure again.
C. More than 12.
There are few players in hockey, if any, who are as committed to their conditioning as Cullen. As long as he doesn’t get hurt, his level of play isn’t going to fall off considerably. Take that and add it to the fact that Cullen is returning to a system that seems to fit his game perfectly, and it’s reasonable to expect a small uptick in production from last year.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.