Matt Cullen

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Recently retired Cullen joins Penguins’ front office

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Recently retired forward Matt Cullen is sticking with the Pittsburgh Penguins, joining the hockey operations department.

The team announced Thursday that Cullen will have a player development role. General manager Jim Rutherford called Cullen a ”valuable asset” who will put his 21 years of NHL experience to use while working closely with Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan.

Cullen retired from the Penguins last month after more than two decades in the NHL. He won three Stanley Cups – with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017 and the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.

Cullen scored 266 goals to go with 465 assists and 502 penalty minutes in 1,516 games with eight teams. He also had 19 goals and 39 assists in 132 career playoff games.

Drafted 35th overall by Anaheim in 1996, Cullen’s best season came in Carolina’s run to the Cup, when he set career highs in goals (25) and points (49).

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.

Penguins’ Matt Cullen fined $1,000 by NHL for dangerous trip

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NEW YORK (AP) — Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cullen has been fined $1,000 by the NHL for a dangerous trip of Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Miller.

The infraction came during the first period of Thursday night’s game, a 4-3 victory by Tampa Bay. Cullen was assessed a minor penalty for tripping.

In announcing the fine, the league said Friday the money will go the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

Under pressure: Mike Johnston

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The Pittsburgh Penguins fired coach Dan Bylsma because claiming division titles isn’t good enough for a franchise trying to win more than one championship while Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still in their prime. Mike Johnston was hired to do better, but that’s not what happened in 2014-15. Penguins executive David Morehouse claimed that the team never seriously considered firing Johnston after that, but will that change if Pittsburgh fails to live up to expectations again?

Johnston’s Penguins were effective for much of the regular season, but a late season collapse nearly ended their playoff berth streak and they dropped four out of five games against the New York Rangers in the first round. Internally, injuries were reportedly viewed as a primary cause for the Penguins’ 2014-15 shortcomings and it certainly is true that they didn’t have Kris Letang or Pascal Dupuis during that first round series.

At the same time, the team’s scoring depth was a big problem too and it’s one GM Jim Rutherford hopes he addressed this summer with the additions of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, and Matt Cullen. Adding a player of Kessel’s caliber in particular raises expectations, but it also emphasizes the immediacy of the Penguins’ window for a few different reasons.

First and foremost, the Penguins gave up a top prospect in Kasperi Kapanen and a conditional first-round draft pick to get him, further depleting their pool of prospects. Secondly, Phil Kessel will turn 28 in October and while that’s not old even by NHL standards, it is roughly in line with the ages of Malkin, Crosby, Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury. Of that group, Fleury was the first to enter his 30s and as the rest of them follow suit, diminishing returns will become an increasing concern that’s compounded by the fact that they’re all signed to expensive long-term contracts that consume a lot of Pittsburgh’s cap space.

Which is to say that Pittsburgh can’t afford to be squandering seasons and if Johnston isn’t the guy to lead them to a Stanley Cup championship, then the Penguins have to make a change sooner rather than later. That’s not to suggest that Johnston shouldn’t be the coach in 2015-16, but it does mean that the pressure on him to deliver the best possible outcome couldn’t be higher.

It’s Pittsburgh Penguins Day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Pittsburgh Penguins.

After another disappointing finish in the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins decided to change course by replacing GM Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma with Jim Rutherford and Mike Johnston respectively prior to the start of the 2014-15 campaign. The results, at least as far as last season was concerned, were not desirable.

To be fair, Pittsburgh was strong for much of the campaign and was even in the running for the Presidents’ Trophy through March 12 with a 39-18-10 record. However, they went 4-9-2 for the remainder of the season and they just barely secured the second Wild Card seed. That set up a first round series against the New York Rangers that the Penguins lost in five games.

For a team that’s home to two of the best forwards in the league, the Penguins’ big weakness last season was actually their offense. Years of subpar drafting beyond first round picks and a top-heavy salary balance sheet seemed to finally catch up with the Penguins as they were thin on scoring threats outside of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Chris Kunitz, James Neal, and Jussi Jokinen provided the Penguins with at least 57 points each in 2013-14, but the 35-year-old Kunitz slid to 40 points, Neal had been dealt to Nashville in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, and Jokinen left as an unrestricted free agent. Consequently, Malkin and Crosby were the only Penguins players to record more than 57 points last season.

Pittsburgh went from being tied for the fifth best offense in 2013-14 to finishing in a tie for 18th just one season later. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had a strong campaign and that continued into the 2015 playoffs, but the Penguins provided him with just eight goals of support over five games against the Rangers.

Off-season recap

Rutherford has moved to bolster the Penguins’ offense over the summer. He brought Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh in a blockbuster trade with Toronto that also involved the Penguins conceding 2014 first round pick Kasperi Kapanen. Nearly a month later, Pittsburgh acquired Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening, and a 2016 second round pick from Vancouver in exchange for Brandon Sutter and a 2016 third round selection.

Pittsburgh further addressed its forward depth with the signings of Eric Fehr (three years, $6 million) and Matt Cullen (one-year, $800K).

Combine that with the return of Pascal Dupuis (blood clots) and Pittsburgh’s group of forwards should look significantly different this season.