“Until the 42-year-old actually says he’s retired, we’re going to assume he’s coming back for at least one more year.”
That was what we said about Matt Cullen Tuesday before praising him as one of the top free agent centers still available, but as it turns out he’s not a part of that class after all and that we need assume no longer: after more than 1,500 games in the NHL, across which he played for eight franchises including the Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes and Minnesota Wild, the 21-season veteran is calling it a career.
And what a truly interesting career it was.
Across a big-league tenure that spanned half of his time on this earth, Cullen pieced together an impressive resume and carved out a niche for himself. As he closes this chapter, he does so with 1,516 games played in the NHL, good for the 19th-most in league history and making him one of only 20 players to exceed the 1,500-game plateau. But what stands out most about Cullen’s games played total is that he's a vastly different player than the Brendan Shanahans and Steve Yzermans and Mike Modanos who surround him on the all-time list. Unlike those players, who were true stars and standouts and each of whom are now Hall of Famers, Cullen earned his keep as a Swiss Army Knife of sorts.
Sure, he could score. He had a pair of 20-goal campaigns, several 40-plus point seasons and wrapped up his career with 285 goals and 789 points to his name. But more than produce, Cullen was a disciplined, dedicated, two-way player, often a fixture on the penalty kill for whichever team he played and usually a contributor on the power play, as well. He was a coach’s favorite, a reliable hand and won the Stanley Cup not once, not twice, but three times. The final two came in back-to-back fashion with the Penguins, through whom he announced his retirement after spending three of his past four seasons in Pittsburgh.
But never, not once, was Cullen an all-star, either on the end-of-season team or at the showcase spectacle. Never, not once, did Cullen win an end-of-season award. In fact, the closest he ever came was when he received three first-place and three second-place votes for the Lady Byng Trophy. That came in 2015-16, when he also received fourth- and fifth-place votes for the Selke Trophy. It was enough to finish 34th in voting for the best defensive-forward award, tops in his career. And never, not once, did Cullen exceed 25 goals or 40 assists or 50 points.
Despite that, Cullen was able to do what few players of his ilk have, which is remain a useful middle-six piece at a time when the game is getting younger and faster. While there are others who have played into their 40s in the modern era – the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Teemu Selanne, Mark Recchi and Zdeno Chara have stood out in recent years – Cullen was cut from a different cloth. He was never a star, most certainly never as superstar, and he wasn’t top-line scorer of yesteryear or former franchise cornerstone who was playing out his final days. He was a role player. He had been for much of his career. And he remained that into his 40s while also continuing to be productive. He scored seven goals and 20 points in 71 games with the Penguins last season. According to Hockey-Reference, that’s the 14th-best point total by any player in their age 42 season in NHL history.
Cullen is one of the few players who have been able to cling to middle-six NHL work well past their primes, too. In fact, since 1998-99, when the league began tracking game-by-game ice time statistics, there are only 70 players who have skated in more than 700 games while averaging fewer than 16 minutes per outing. (Cullen would likely fall under the 15-minute average were his numbers not goosed by a stint in the top-six during his early-30s.) Of those 70 players, Cullen is one of the very best. His 1,455 games are unmatched, his 704 points are second to only Scott Hartnell and Cullen is the assist leader with 444, one more than the 443 registered by Andrew Brunette.
Where he ranks among the great role players of this generation – the Brunettes and Tomas Holmstroms and Scott Hartnells – is up for debate. What isn’t is whether Cullen is one of the very best of that bunch.