Cullen: Too Early to Push Panic Button on Pens’ Core

Veteran forward will again weigh retirement this offseason

Josh Rowntree
April 19, 2019 - 5:30 pm
Pittsburgh Penguins center Matt Cullen (7) takes the ice against the Carolina Hurricanes during the first period at PPG PAINTS Arena.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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It may be the end of the line for veteran Penguins forward Matt Cullen. 

If this is the finish to Cullen’s 21-year career, it seems he is going out in an unpleasant way following Pittsburgh’s first-round sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders. 

“It’s disappointing,” Cullen said Thursday. “I think we all had some pretty high expectations and high hopes heading into the playoffs. We all put a lot into it and we all care. We didn’t have our best series, and they did. So, unfortunately, here we are. It’s a short season.”

Cullen is 42 years old and will turn 43 as the season gets underway in early November. He has been playing professional hockey since Bill Clinton was president. One of his winger’s in Tuesday’s Game 4, Zach Aston-Reese, had just turned three years old when Cullen made his NHL debut. 

Now Cullen will debate retirement for another offseason.

“It’s a big decision for me and for my family,” Cullen said. “In the whole scheme of things, it’s not a big deal. But, for us, it’s a big deal. We’ll give it its due time and put a little thought and time into it and figure something out here before too long.”

Cullen scored seven goals and racked up 20 points while playing primarily on the Penguins’ fourth line this year. His work on the penalty kill is where he excelled the most and, despite his age, he did not show major signs of slowing down.

“I’m really thankful that I was able to enjoy playing here down the stretch, because I felt as good as I’ve felt in a long time, which is great,” he said. “As you get older, you just hope that you can feel good enough to allow yourself to play and be effective. I was really happy with how my body felt, so I was able to enjoy it and try to help the team and be a positive impact.”

Cullen joined the Penguins for the 2015-2016 season following stints in eight different NHL cities. During his first two years, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup twice. Cullen left, via free agency, and played last season in his home state of Minnesota, before returning to Pittsburgh. 

A veteran, leading influence for those championship teams, Cullen was frequently lauded by teammates as a positive example in the locker room. In his eyes, the harsh criticisms of the team’s chemistry this year and the alluding to massive change to the roster, spelled out Thursday by Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford, may not be completely shared. 

“You have a core group of guys that are some pretty elite hockey players and I think Jim’s always done a good job of surrounding them with the right kind of talent and the right kind of player,” Cullen said shortly before Rutherford’s critiques.

“For whatever reason, this year, it didn’t work. I think it’s a little bit early, honestly, to push the panic button on this group. You look at the them last year, they were just a whisker away from moving on to the Conference Final.”

The way 2019 ended has to be discouraging to anyone involved in the Penguins’ organization. To be stymied by a team that does not have the star power of the Penguins was surprising, at best. 

“I think the thing with this group that had me excited was the way that we played in March,” Cullen said. “We made a lot of changes this year and I think they were positives. The guys that came in contributed a lot. I think going into the playoffs we felt pretty good where we were at, playing some pretty good hockey down the stretch.”

But that strong play faltered when it mattered most.

“We weren’t as good as we could have been,” Cullen added. “I think that’s probably the most frustrating part. I think we had another level and a lot more to give. So that’s the disappointing part, not fulfilling your full potential and seeing what you can be as a group. 

“I don’t have any doubt that everybody bought in and gave what they had. It’s just four games, we didn’t find our best and they did.”

Cullen admitted that he took time to think about Tuesday’s game being his last in the NHL. There’s no telling if Cullen will come back for another year and, even if he does, there’s no guarantee that it will be in Pittsburgh. 

If it is, Cullen got to spend his last few years with his three sons, who were quite present at games and team events. Affectionately referred to as “Dad” by members of the Penguins’ organization, Cullen may decide to make “Dad” his full-time role. 

“I’m so thankful for (the Penguins),” he said. “I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys and a better organization to be around, for me, my family, my kids. They’ll wear black and gold for the rest of their lives, I’ll tell you that. It’s been an awesome ride, it’s really just been awesome.”

Hear all of what Matt Cullen had to say below.