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Matt Cullen and Building From the Bottom Up

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The Penguins' forward depth: once a strength, then a weakness, and now a strength again.

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From 2010 to 2015, the Penguins player wearing number 7 was a guy born in Minnesota, who was underrated defensively and offensively. He was a guiding veteran presence, and his positive impact on everyone he played with was especially felt when contrasted to the lineup without him in it. Drafted in the 2nd round in the 2000 draft, you could make a case for him being one of the best players from his draft class. While not the biggest at 6'1'', and 200 pounds, his hockey smarts made him more valuable than those stronger, bigger, and more physical than him.

The current Penguins player wearing number 7 is a guy born in Minnesota, who is underrated defensively and offensively. He is a guiding veteran presence, and his positive impact on everyone he played with is especially felt when contrasted to the lineup without him in it. Drafted in the 2nd round in the 1996 draft, you could make a case for him being one of the best players from his draft class. While not the biggest at 6'1'', and 200 pounds, his hockey smarts make him more valuable than those stronger, bigger, and more physical than him.

Matt Cullen has played in over 1200 NHL games. He won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. During that postseason, he had 18 points in 25 games, which tied him for 3rd in scoring on the team. Since then, he has played for 5 different teams. This August, the 39-year old signed a one-year contract with the Penguins. He currently has 5 points in 14 games.

Bottom Six Revival

For the last few years, the Penguins were not known for their forward depth. Once a strength during their the years when they won the Cup, it has been a weakness ever since Jordan Staal got traded to Carolina.

Here is how Matt Cullen compares to some of the former Penguins bottom six players at even strength:

Red is bad, blue is good. The numbers are from when each player played for the Penguins from 2011 to now. Matt Cullen's numbers from the same period are shown to illustrate that his current performance is what he has done for years.

Despite being among the oldest NHL players (the only NHLers older than him who are currently playing: Jagr, Doan, D.Boyle) Cullen has continued to be a very good player. On his current contract, he provides one of the best cost per point values (his $160k/point ranks 15th in the NHL at the moment).

In 14 games, Cullen has already outproduced what Lapierre, Sill, and Pyatt have done in that span while playing for the Penguins. The only player who comes close is Brandon Sutter. Of course some of it is related to their line mates. Where Marcel Goc mostly played with Sill and Adams, Cullen has played with Porter, Sprong, Plotnikov, Fehr, Bennett, and even Perron. But it goes both ways. Cullen benefits from playing with those good players, but they also gain from playing with Cullen.

It's no accident that Cullen has the primary assist on both of Daniel Sprong's goals so far:

For perspective, a few players from the Penguins bottom six from a time when it was considered a strength:

Of course not every player on the 3rd and 4th line was a Jordan Staal-type player during that time. Jarkko Ruutu, Mike Rupp, Georges Laraque, a (younger, better) Craig Adams all saw the ice at some point. But with Jordan Staal being the driving force behind it, it was a big part of the Penguins' identity.

Only the Beginning

It starts with Matt Cullen, but it doesn't end with him. Eric Fehr, Beau Bennett, Daniel Sprong, Nick Bonino, Sergei Plotnikov, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, David Perron. A mix of veterans, who are known quantities, and young players with still mostly unexplored, but promising potential. The early returns have been good, with Bennett, Sprong, Cullen, Perron, Fehr, and Plotnikov all producing over 1 pts/60 at even strength. For reference, here is a chart that Stephen Burtch from Sportsnet made. It looks at what production one should expect from each line:

Softening the blow

Four solid forward lines will have a positive influence on each other, and on the defense, too. The Penguins have their issues, but a strong forward depth has helped cover some of them up so far. It will likely continue to do so until they either figure those issues out internally or through trades.

While some of the Penguins top players are currently not producing up to their standard, it makes more sense to expect them to return to producing well than it is to expect that Tanner Glass suddenly produces at Eric Fehr's level. Sidney Crosby is unlikely to have a 5% shooting percentage for the rest of the season. And that applies to the Penguins, too. Currently only 6 teams have a lower shooting percentage at even strength (among them the Blackhawks, Ducks, Kings). The power play has already started to rebound from a terrible shooting percentage, with goals in 5 games straight.

After scoring 1.65 goals per game in their first 8 games (with only the Ducks scoring less in that span), the Penguins have now scored 3 goals per game in their last 6 (with only 5 other teams scoring at a higher rate).

The Penguins are currently producing the 3rd most scoring chances at even strength in the NHL - only the Stars and Blues are ahead of them. In the last 10 years, the only seasons where the Penguins produced more were 2011-2012 and 2009-2010. Saying that they are a bad offensive team and basing it on how many goals they scored is likely as false as saying they have been playing well defensively and citing the lack of goals against.

Perron has more points in his last 6 games than he had in over 20 games before that. Kessel has 4 points in his current 3 game point streak, and has returned to his point-per-game ways after a slow start with 7 points in his last 7 games. More and more forwards seem to be finding chemistry with their linemates and producing at levels that we expect from them.

Their defense seems to be a bigger issue, with both the team defense and the individual defense pairs being underwhelming so far. Fleury has done well to make it appear better than it actually is. While their shot suppression has become better in their last 4-5 games (the rank 3rd in the league in shots against since then), there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

While the Penguins try to find answers and solutions, their bottom six should provide something for the Penguins that it hasn't for a long time: steady support. Be it through secondary scoring, or easing the defensive load from the top forwards and d-men.