Aug 27, 2013
Nashville finished dead last in the NHL in scoring last season. Does the newly acquired Matt Cullen have the power to change that?
Last season, as part of a highly-touted, highly-paid and highly-targeted Minnesota Wild team, 36-year-old Matt Cullen chalked up a very respectable 27 points in 42 contests. The fourth leading scorer behind Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Ryan Suter on a playoff team, Cullen’s performance was as unheralded as his signing in Nashville. On the first day of free agency, Nashville signed the 1,000-game veteran to a two-year, $7 million deal.
Consistently a high 30-40 point producer, Cullen’s 0.643 point per game performance in the shortened season would average out to over 52 points in a full, 82-game season. In addition, his 3 point performance in the Wild’s short 5-game playoff series against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks actually led all Wild players. Perhaps most impressive about Cullen’s point production is that he did it on the second line. While Koivu and Parise were cranking out points, Cullen was producing most of his assists off of the stick of Devin Setoguchi.
Cullen was at his most dominant last season in the faceoff circle, finishing 17th in the league in faceoff percentage with 54.7% (Nashville’s Paul Gaustad was 3rd with 59.7%).
In his 15 prior seasons, Cullen has surpassed the 40-point mark on 7 occasions. He has also racked up a total of two 20-goal seasons. In 2005-06, Cullen scored 25 goals with the Carolina Hurricanes on his way to having his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
“Physically, I feel better than I’ve felt at any point in my career,” Cullen said in July. “I feel good skating-wise on the ice and I like to think that I’m a little smarter than I used to be when I was a young guy. I feel pretty good about where I’m at as far as my game and my physical side.”
This season, Matt Cullen finds himself on a Nashville Predators team looking to regain an identity. Last season, Nashville’s 109 goals were the fewest in the NHL. Additionally, Cullen’s 27 points would have led all Predators forwards.
The biggest question regarding Cullen is, “What can he do?” Obviously a large portion of Cullen’s scoring ability comes from setting up his teammates to score. A large portion of Nashville’s failures last season came not only from their inability to score, but from their inability to shoot the puck. Not only did Nashville finish dead last in the league in scoring, but they also brought up the rear in shots on goal with 1,244. The concern over Cullen is that a set-up center may not be effective if the set-up man does not have an effective closer on the other end of the ice. Nashville hopes that the addition of Viktor Stalberg adds that goal scoring pop. Will they be hockey’s version of Montana-to-Rice? No, but Cullen could at least create scoring chances for Nashville that did not exist last season.
The good news for Nashville – and for Cullen – is that, per his own statements, he knows and understands Nashville’s style of play. He feels that it is a system in which he can excel. Remembering that Cullen left his hometown team to join a division rival in the twilight years of his career leads a bit of credence to that. If Cullen is right on his improving ability and about his ability to fit into Nashville’s system, he could potentially put up career numbers over the next two seasons.
While Cullen built up most of his points last season on assists, he pulled an absolutely lethal snapshot out of his bag of tricks last season and unleashed it on Jonathan Quick.
Photo: Mel Boyson