Matt Cullen

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Matt Cullen retires after 21 NHL seasons, three Stanley Cups

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A career that began in 1997 has come to an end after 21 seasons, 1,516 NHL games and three Stanley Cup titles. On Wednesday, Matt Cullen announced his retirement at the age of 42.

In a story he wrote for the Pittsburgh Penguins website, Cullen said that he knew entering the 2018-19 season it would be his final one in hockey. Over the past few summers, the topic of retirement would come up and the longtime NHL forward had his doubts if he could continue playing.

“I remember waking up in the middle of the night many times these last few years thinking, ‘What am I doing? I’m 40 years old,” he wrote. “I don’t think I can play another year in the NHL.’ After each time I signed the past few years I woke up in a cold sweat, not sure if I could still play.

“Honestly, if I could play forever, I would. All I know is hockey. I’ve never done anything. I never wanted to do anything else. I don’t know anything else.”

Cullen, a 1996 second-round pick, spent his first five and a half NHL seasons with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim before being dealt to the Florida Panthers. He would later sign with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2004 and help the franchise win their first ever Stanley Cup championship in 2006. He finished tied for third on the team that postseason in scoring with 18 points.

A year after signing with the New York Rangers, Cullen was dealt back to Carolina. He’d later move on to Ottawa, Minnesota, and Nashville before landing with the Penguins where he was part of their 2016 and 2017 back-to-back Cup winning teams.

Cullen spent three of his final four NHL seasons in Pittsburgh, with a one-season stop back home in Minnesota in 2017-18. He gained clarity about his future over the last few seasons and was comfortable with hanging up his skates now rather than coming back for another season.

“It was an emotional time, but I knew it was coming. It just felt right and I was really at peace with everything when it was over,” Cullen wrote.

“I felt like it was only right to retire in Pittsburgh with everything that the organization had given me and done for me. I’m so happy I came back and finished my last year in Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t trade that last year for anything.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Trade: Penguins deal Kessel to Coyotes for Galchenyuk

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The Phil Kessel drama in Pittsburgh has finally come to an end.

Kessel is moving on to the Arizona Coyotes as part of a deal that was consummated Saturday between the two teams. The 31-year-old forward is reunited with former Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre-Olivier Joseph. The Coyotes also receive a 2021 fourth-round pick and defenseman Dane Birks.

“First of all, I’ll say that he was a terrific player for us and played a huge part in those two Cups. And I can’t say enough good things about him. And I like him personally,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. “I just think it was time to make a change with him.”

Kessel has three years remaining on a contract that carried a salary cap hit of $6.8 million. Galchenyuk will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2019-20 NHL season. His deal brings a cap hit of $4.9 million.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Rutherford tried to trade Kessel, who had 27 goals and 82 points in 82 games this season, once this off-season, but a deal with the Minnesota Wild fell through after the forward refused to waive his no-move clause. Kessel’s clause allows the Penguins to deal him to eight pre-approved teams. If Kessel was going to be leaving Pittsburgh, he would be controlling the situation, which, according to an article in The Athletic this week, was becoming an issue for some inside the Penguins’ organization.

Despite the rumors that swirled around Kessel, he produced on the ice. He’s one of 18 players to record at least 300 points since the 2015-16 season and over that same period of time he scored 110 goals for the Penguins. He’s also a durable player having not missed a game since the 2009-10 season and owns the third-longest active consecutive games streak (774) and is eighth all-time.

“We felt the ability to add a scorer was the primary need for our group,” Coyotes GM John Chayka said during a Saturday night conference call. “Phil has been one of the best offensive producers in the league for a long time and we think he’s going to come in motivated and ready to go.”

“I’m just coming in to do what I do best and try to help the team win as many games as possible,” Kessel said. “I think they’re an up-and-coming team, they’ve got a lot of pieces in place and I want to help them along.”

The 25-year-old Galchenyuk played one season with the Coyotes following a trade from the Montreal Canadiens last summer. He scored 19 goals and recorded 41 points in 72 games. Those numbers could be in for a bit of a boost if head coach Mike Sullivan puts him on the wing next to either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

Rutherford said there was going to be change to the roster following their first-round sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders. He now has a little over $5 million in cap space, per Cap Friendly, to continue tweaking the roster. There are no real major re-signings to be done other than decisions on UFAs Matt Cullen and Garrett Wilson, as well as restricted free agents Zach-Aston Reese, Marcus Pettersson and Teddy Blueger. It’s not the greatest of free agent classes to go shopping on the cheap, so more trades could be on the way for the Penguins.

Kessel and the Coyotes make their visit to Pittsburgh on Friday, Dec. 6.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

What now? Penguins face crucial offseason after flameout

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jim Rutherford’s question was rhetorical. The answer – whenever the architect the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager arrives at it – will determine how the franchise emerges from the rubble of a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

”Are guys too content with where they’re at in their careers because they’ve won a couple of Stanley Cups?” Rutherford wondered aloud Thursday as his team packed up for its longest offseason in 13 years.

Just 22 months removed from becoming the first team in a generation to win consecutive championships , captain Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Penguins are at a crossroads.

”It’s disappointing to have this long of an offseason,” said Crosby, who posted the sixth 100-point season of his career but managed just one against the Islanders. ”It’s been a while since we’ve had this much time really.”

Failing to three-peat by losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in six hotly contested games against an archrival – as Pittsburgh did last spring when it lost to Washington in the second round – is one thing. Scoring just six goals while getting outskated, outplayed and outworked by a team with a new coach, a journeyman goaltender and little playoff success over the last quarter century is quite another.

”(The Islanders) played the right way and they were eager to win,” Rutherford said. ”They were determined and the Penguins weren’t.”

Maybe the end shouldn’t have been so stunning. Though the Penguins extended their playoff streak to 13 years and counting, they only sporadically played the kind of intelligent and responsible hockey coach Mike Sullivan has tried to instill from the moment he took over in December 2015.

Injuries to stars like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang didn’t help. Neither did a significant amount of roster turnover. Yet Pittsburgh’s best stretch came during a 10-3-3 sprint through March , one the Penguins made with Malkin and Letang available only occasionally. Sullivan pointed to an increased ”cooperative effort” by the group with Malkin and Letang missing, a key ingredient in ”what it takes to win.”

When they returned full time for the playoffs, the cohesion vanished.

Malkin ended a wildly uneven year by struggling to find the dominance that once came so easily. Letang, whose play over the first four-plus months helped the Penguins rebound from a decidedly sluggish start, had a handful of miscues against the Islanders that led immediately to pucks in the back of the Pittsburgh net.

The question going forward is whether Letang, Malkin and forwards Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel – all of whom will be 32 or older when next seasons open – can make the necessary adjustments to their respective games over the next six months to make sure they stick around for the rest of a championship window Rutherford insists remains open.

All four have had highly successful careers and were integral parts of the core group that raised two Stanley Cup banners to the rafters at PPG Paints Arena. All four, however, also have a penchant for taking risks, gambles they could afford to make because their talent often helped them recover when those gambles went awry.

That wiggle room is gone. The evidence came during a series in which the Penguins led for less than five minutes.

Crosby – who will be in the conversation for the Selke Trophy given annually to the league’s top defensive forward – insists his longtime teammates can adapt.

Letang isn’t really sure he has to. Asked if he will take a more defensive-oriented approach heading into his 14th season, he bristled.

”At the end of the day, yeah, I wish I could have done something else at different times, but I don’t think the question is to change my whole game,” Letang said. ”I’m not going to change three plays in my whole year for the type of game I play.”

And there’s the dilemma for the front office. The Penguins have to decide whether they need to adjust their style or their personnel – or both. Whether they can find takers for veterans with their names on the Cup multiple times but also multiple years left on lucrative contracts will play a factor. Either way, Sullivan believes there needs to be a renewed focus when his team – however it is constituted – returns in September.

”The challenge is to make sure that there’s 100 percent buy-in throughout the lineup,” Sullivan said. ”I think the area of our identity that we lost a little bit is the hard-to-play-against aspect.”

NOT SO THIN BLUE LINE

Rutherford defended the play of his defenders, Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson specifically. Both are big bodies not known for their skating. Gudbranson was solid after arriving in a trade with Vancouver while Johnson played all 82 games before being a curious healthy scratch for Game 1 against the Islanders.

”I think our defense is probably the best that’s it has been since I’ve been here as a group,” Rutherford said.

SEE YA DAD?

Matt Cullen had seven goals and 13 assists and remained a faceoff wizard – particularly in the defensive zone – in his 21st season. The 42-year-old, however, seems headed for retirement to spend more time with his wife and three boys. His leadership and character will be difficult to replace.

”I think just he’s such a pro in the way he approached every day, the way he led by example, the way he treated guys,” Crosby said. ”He can still play.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Buzzer: Avalanche land last spot in West

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Three Stars

1. Phil Kessel

This is actually a dual Penguins three-point scorer award, as both Kessel and Sidney Crosby (one goal, two assists) enjoyed three-point nights as Pittsburgh clinched a playoff spot.

Kessel gets the edge for a couple reasons, though. For one thing, he had more goals than Crosby, as Kessel’s points came via two goals and one assist. One of the winger’s goals ended up standing as the game-winner, too.

With 82 points in 81 games, this ties Kessel’s 2011-12 as his second-best output, behind only last year’s 92. While Kessel seems to find his name mentioned far too often in trade rumors, the guy just keeps delivering. In particular, he probably deserves more credit for being “clutch,” as he’s been dynamite for the Penguins in postseason situations, and also important regular season moments like these.

Also, he once filled the Stanley Cup with hot dogs for trolling purposes. Pretty good final tiebreaker, actually.

2. Alexander Steen

As An Increasingly Old, I can relate to Steen slowing down, as the Blues forward has done at 35.

It’s nice to see strong outbursts like these from Steen, then, unless you’re a part of the Central Division jumble where three spots still haven’t been decided. Then you’d probably prefer the Blues to be a one-line team, thank you very much.

Steen scored two goals and one assist on Thursday, with one of those tallies coming shorthanded. His 27 points are more solid when you realize he’s been limited to 64 games played, so maybe he can heat up for the postseason?

3. Petr Mrazek

It was tempting to go for Jack Eichel (one goal and two assists, and you’ll see that one of those helpers ended up being special) or Jaroslav Halak, who pitched a 26-save shutout. There were other nice performances, too.

With the Sabres eliminated and the Bruins already locked in place, the Hurricanes “needed” more out of Mrazek, at least for a while. The complications of clinching scenarios called for some changes, but the bottom line is that Mrazek played well enough to make the process more straightforward for Carolina, as the clinched a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, ending a decade-long postseason drought.

Highlights of the Night

Two moments of great passing really took the cake on Thursday. First, check out this sweet no-look pass by almost-third-star Jack Eichel to Sam Reinhart:

If you’re like me, you’re a sucker for fantastic breakout passes, and Dougie Hamilton provided exactly that to Warren Foegele:

Factoids

  • There will be greater detail on this later, but in the East, the Capitals clinched the Metropolitan Division title, while the Penguins and Hurricanes locked down playoff berths. Out West, the Avalanche clinched their spot, punctuated by this goal from Nathan MacKinnon to Erik Johnson, thus knocking off the Coyotes. The West’s eight is set, while positioning is still to be determined in certain situations.

(Technically, this goal really secured the spot, but the Johnson goal was more fun.)

Scores

BUF 5 – OTT 2
TBL 3 – TOR 1
NYI 2 – FLA 1 (SO)
PIT 4 – DET 1
WSH 2 – MTL 1
CAR 3 – NJD 1
STL 7 – PHI 3
NSH 3 – VAN 2
BOS 3 – MIN 0
COL 3 – WPG 2 (OT)
SJS 3 – EDM 2
ARI 4 – VGK 1

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Bobrovsky and Blue Jackets are on fire

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Three Stars

1. Anthony Mantha

What a game by the big Red Wings winger.

It was all about five in Detroit on Sunday. That’s how many games the Red Wings have now won in a row, and that’s how many points Mantha collected. Mantha generated the first hat trick of his NHL career, and added two assists for his first five-point game.

Mantha came into Sunday with 19 goals, so he also crossed the 20-goal barrier, finishing the night with 22 goals and 45 points on the season. He has a solid chance to meet or exceed last season’s career-highs of 24 goals and 48 points.

2. Darcy Kuemper

There were three impressive shutouts on Sunday, so we’ll just go in order of who got the most saves, so apologies to Rangers’ netminder Alexandar Georgiev, who finished the afternoon with 29 saves to blank the Flyers.

Kuemper generated a 39-save shutout in gaining an absolutely crucial win for the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday, and he’s really been dragging Arizona through a lot of low-margin-of-error games lately. Really, Kuemper has been one of the best netminders in the NHL since the calendar turned 2019, and he’s giving Arizona a decent chance to beat some enormous odds.

Kuemper now has five shutouts in 2018-19, and has generated two in his last three games, only allowing two goals overall during that span.

3. Sergei Bobrovsky

It’s been a bumpy season for Bob, to say the least, but he’s coming up big in some absolutely clutch moments for the Blue Jackets.

Bobrovsky generated a 38-save shutout on Sunday, just one behind Kuemper. Like his Coyotes colleague, Bobrovsky has been red hot lately. Bobrovsky now has three shutouts in his last five games, and four in his last seven. He’s only allowed seven goals overall in his last seven games.

Bobrovsky’s won five games in a row, and also seven of his last eight. The Blue Jackets’ prospects have risen from possibly missing the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs after going all-in, to maybe avoiding the Lightning in the first round, and possibly going into the postseason with some swagger.

Things tend to change when “Vezina Bob” comes back into the picture, eh?

Highlights of the Night

From Anthony Mantha’s five points to that sweet Patrice Bergeron to Brad Marchand shorthanded goal, the Red Wings – Bruins game had some of Sunday’s best action, so enjoy the full highlights:

Factoids

  • More on this in a future post, but the Calgary Flames clinched both the Pacific Division and top seed in the West by beating the Sharks on Sunday. So, the Lightning get home-ice throughout the postseason, while the Flames get that edge through the West playoffs.
  • This means that the Sharks and Golden Knights will face each other in what could be a fierce Pacific second vs. third seed series in the first round.
  • That sweet Brad Marchand shorthanded goal was his 26th, setting a new Bruins record, so watch it in isolation if you’d prefer:

Scores

New York Rangers 3, Philadelphia Flyers 0
Arizona Coyotes 4, Minnesota Wild 0
Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Carolina Hurricanes 1
Columbus Blue Jackets 4, Buffalo Sabres 0
Detroit Red Wings 6, Boston Bruins 3
Calgary Flames 5, San Jose Sharks 3

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.