It's Time to Get Real About Matt Cullen

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The inspiration from this post comes from a discussion that started in the comments section of the story on the Penguins' recall of Zach Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson, two players who could potentially take the place of maligned winger, Daniel Sprong, in the Pens' bottom 6. Sprong has largely been a disappointment and Nick, someone whose opinion I respect, even if I don't always agree with it, pointed to Matt Cullen's role as something of a mentor, teacher, and effective linemate for previous Penguins' prospects like Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and Tom Kuhnhackl as they made the jump to the big team.

And that got me thinking: what role, if any, does Cullen have to play in Sprong's struggles or possible future successes? What role can Cullen, realistically, still fill on this team? So I started to dig into some numbers.

First, here are Cullen's last 4 years of underlying metrics:






























As you can see, his first two years in Pittsburgh were solid and steady. Even in a largely defensive, 4th line role, he was fairly break even in possession and even managed to win the scoring chance battle on most nights.

But starting last year, in Minnesota, he fell off a cliff. Or perhaps, Father Time pushed him off of one. His numbers plummeted. Your first instinct would probably be to think they had changed his usage.

And they had.

To a more offensive one.

Cullen saw a significantly higher percentage of his shifts with Minnesota start in the Offensive Zone. And still, his line was getting caved in consistently. So whatever the coaching staff there was doing to try to prop him up did not work.

Now back in Pittsburgh, Sullivan has gone back to using Cullen in a largely defensive role with even fewer of his shifts starting in the O. Zone than during his first tenure here. The results have continued to be poor as Cullen has the worst possession numbers of any forward on the team.

Obviously, the issue of line mates bears considering here, as well.

Cullen's most common line mates so far this season have been Patric Hornqvist and Riley Sheahan, as Sullivan tried to put together an old-school checking/energy line to stymie the opposition. That trio has an abysmal 37.5% Corsi through pieces of 13 games and surrendered more chances than they created. But they managed to stay positive on goal differential thanks to a 104.4 PDO.

Hornqvist and Sheahan together but without Cullen are more break-even with a 48% CF and 53.85% SCF.

The story is similar with Sprong and I could go on and on, but maybe a simple visual will help to tell the story:


This is the WOWY chart for Cullen this year. It only shows players who have played at least 15 5v5 minutes with him so far. But as you can see, everyone, with the weird exception of Bryan Rust (who has only had 19 minutes with him), is better away from Cullen than they are with him.

This isn't meant to absolve Daniel Sprong of responsibility for his shortcomings; he has not lived up to expectations by any stretch and will have to dig himself out of that hole with the coaching staff and the fans.

But it should be clear from this post that playing him with Cullen, hell, playing anyone with Cullen is not the answer. Depending on how you look at it, his signing this past summer was either a harmless gamble on a veteran player and fan favorite who could serve as a leader in the locker room, or a desperate attempt to rekindle old magic with a player who was clearly past his prime last year.

Personally, I'd put myself in the former category, but the Pens now need to acknowledge that it hasn't gone as planned and start making Cullen the 13th forward. He's not good enough to play the role they want him to play and he's certainly not good enough to hitch a Daniel Sprong to and expect them to produce.

Data comes from Corsica.Hockey and WOWY chart courtesy of

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