D rafted by Anaheim in 1996 before Nashville had even been awarded an NHL franchise, Matt Cullen has very quietly put together a 1,000-plus game NHL career.
On Friday afternoon, the veteran Cullen signed a 2-year, $7 million contract with Nashville.
“I’m really excited to be joining the Predators,” Cullen said. “I have a lot of respect for the way they play the game.”
Born in Virginia, Minnesota, Cullen played college hockey for St. Cloud State before making the leap to the NHL. For the last 3 seasons, Cullen has played for the Minnesota Wild.
“It’s a new chapter for me,” Cullen said. “Obviously I played in my home state of Minnesota over the last few years and it’s a big change to be moving on from there.”
Nashville will be Cullen’s seventh NHL team, with his previous stops being with the Anaheim Ducks, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Florida Panthers, the Ottawa Senators, the New York Rangers and the aforementioned Minnesota Wild. In 2006, Cullen hoisted the Stanley Cup as a member of Carolina’s winning team. Last season with Minnesota, Cullen put up 27 points (7 G – 20 A) in 42 games. Twice in his career, Cullen has surpassed the 20-goal mark, racking up 25 in 2005-06 and 22 in 2008-09, both with Carolina. He has also crossed the 30-assist barrier in 4 different seasons.
“Last year was actually, for me, probably my best year in a long time – probably since we won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in (2006),” Cullen said. “Physically, I feel better than I’ve felt at any point in my career. 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. I’m looking forward to 2 strong years here in Nashville.”
Cullen also had a fairly surprising recruiter sway him towards the Predators.
“It’s funny,” Cullen said, “I talked to (former Predator) Ryan Suter quite a bit throughout the course of the season last year and he said a lot of good things. I’ve always thought that. I liked how they play, they’re always one of the hardest working teams in the league and I’ve always had a lot of respect for that. They are a consistently competitive team and as you get later in your career, you want to give yourself as many opportunities to take a shot in the playoffs and make a run at the Cup (as you can). For me, it seemed like a really good fit.”
At 36, Cullen is nearing the tail-end of his career. During that career, he has played in 1,073 regular season NHL games and has scored 562 points (202 G – 360 A). In addition, he has appeared in 68 playoff games, scoring 39 points (11 G – 28 A) and, of course, taking home that Stanley Cup title in 2006.
“I try to lead by example as much as I can,” Cullen said. “I definitely know that there are plenty of good leaders in that room with a lot of experience as far as playoffs. I’m just going to try to fit in and bring my style of hockey and my work ethic and hopefully rub off positively on some of the younger guy and hopefully be a positive part of the team. It’s a pretty good core group of guys who have been through a lot there and have had some success and I’m looking forward to being a part of that.”
As for where he fits in on the team, Cullen could provide a little bit of a scoring punch that the team lost when Martin Erat was traded to Washington. Cullen believes that his style will fit into Nashville’s system, which is why he signed with the team.
“I always think of Nashville as a team that comes at you and likes to skate and get up and down the ice,” Cullen said. “For me, that’s the style I like to play. I can go up and try to force teams into bad position and make things happen. For me being a playmaker and an offensive kind of guy, I look forward to it.”
Cullen also understands that he is leaving a strong playoff team for a team that is looking to rebound – he even grasps that goal scoring was Nashville’s biggest bane in 2012-13. However, he feels that Nashville has the talent to bounce back into relevance, starting with the back end.
“When you look at the NHL today, the first thing you look at is goaltending. I think there are very few that would argue that Nashville has one of the best goalies in the league. That’s a good place to start. When you look at the defensive core, Shea Weber is one of the best D in the league and (Roman) Josi has become a very good defenseman. Then you look at a kid like Seth Jones coming in next year and it certainly makes it a very good defense. When you look up front, there are a lot of guys who can skate…you just have to find a way to score goals. For me, I really like the looks of (the team). It’s a group that, to me, has a lot of potential.”
Photo: Mel Boyson