Written by Micheal Hester
While the Pittsburgh Penguins and their fans continue their celebration of the 2016 Stanley Cup victory, general manager Jim Rutherford has quietly handled the tough decisions regarding the roster. To up your chances of repeating a championship run, the important key is keeping that championship team intact, for chemistry purposes more than anything, and it doesn’t hurt to have teammates with championship experience playing alongside each other too.
A huge piece in the Penguins’ defensive identity that led them to the gold is veteran center, Matt Cullen. Cullen is currently a free agent, at a stalemate with the Pens’ front office regarding contractual issues. While there are rumors that Cullen could be playing for his hometown Minnesota Wild next season, Cullen has verbally expressed his desire to return to Pittsburgh. But with the Pens’ cap space troubles, nothing is set in stone. At the age of 40, Cullen has proved Assistant GM Bill Guerin to be right when he said “he’s got a lot of gas left in the tank”. The elite center had 4 goals, 2 assists and 6 points during Pittsburgh’s playoff run, but it was his defense that stood tall when needed the most. His 49%-win percentage in defensive face-offs is still an NHL all-time high. He proved himself very effective on the Pens’ 4th line, killing penalties and handling face-offs. Pair that with his defensive intelligence, and it’s no argument that the veteran is still a key asset. Especially for a team that wants to make a repeat run at the Stanley Cup for a second consecutive year.
The Pens lost Ben Lovejoy during the off-season, but made up for it by David Warsofsky, Cameron Guance, Chad Ruhwedel, and Stuart Percy. They have a stud blue line still, in 29-year-old Kris Letang, 21-year-old Olli Maata, 32-year-old Trevor Daley and Brian Dumolin, who had established himself as a rock on the Pens’ back end. Not to mention they resigned Justin Schultz for one more year. They also have a 22-year-old prospect, Derrick Pouliot in the wings.
If you’re a casual hockey fan, Pouliot isn’t a household name to you. But Pens’ fans and followers not only know him, but should know the potential he wields. Drafted 8th overall in 2012, the 6’0 228lb blue prospect is an intriguing one. There has been mumbling among the fan base about trading him. But Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan know how special this kid can be once his time comes. Pouliot is a casualty of loaded depth. Pittsburgh wields a luxury of depth across their roster, which gives them the luxury of storing prospects like Pouliot until they feel like it’s their time to hit the ice. The Pens aren’t in dire need in any position so trading him for the sake a deal is pointless. With Letang, who is nearing the age of 30 and Daley at 32, Pouliot’s number could be called up sooner than expected.
The Pens’ defense is locked and loaded, but missing their silver bullet: Matt Cullen. For a franchise that prides itself on defense and depth, with the right mixture of youth and veteran experience, the final piece to their puzzle for a repeat might be the 40-year old center who’s waiting for that one phone call.
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