Only one question remains for the Penguins this offseason — will fourth-line center Matt Cullen return?
A whopping 20 skaters averaged more minutes per game than Cullen did this past season, but there’s absolutely no denying his importance to Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup championship. He scored 16 goals along with 32 points and led the team with a 55.7 faceoff percentage, most of which he took in the defensive zone. Cullen was also one of just three Penguins that played every game.
It would be huge for Pittsburgh if they can squeeze the soon-to-be 40-year-old onto the roster for one more season, but if there’s one position the Penguins are prepared to suffer a loss, it’s center.
Everyone knows about Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino. There are a lot of reasons why Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup, but the team’s depth, which starts up the middle on the top three lines, was a huge factor. Cullen solidified the center position on the fourth line, and if he decides to retire or sign elsewhere, the Penguins are confident Oskar Sundqvist can become the team’s fourth-line center.
However, Pittsburgh’s center depth goes beyond even those four, or potentially five, players.
Forward Scott Wilson, who could play either center or wing, is arguably the best prospect (besides Daniel Sprong) of any that played for the Penguins last season. In 89 games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL over the past two seasons, Wilson scored 41 goals and 77 points.
This past season, he averaged more than a point per game at the AHL level. In 24 games with Pittsburgh, he scored five goals, all of which came in his final 12 games, and six points.
Wilson doesn’t have ideal size, but his style is perfect for modern hockey. He is a strong skater who isn’t afraid to forecheck, but also has the ability to finish. Which, frankly, sounds like just about every other young forward in the Penguins’ system.
Also in the Pittsburgh organization is veteran Kevin Porter. The 30-year-old played 41 games this past season for the Penguins, registering three assists. He also had a career-high 50.6 faceoff percentage while playing center mostly when Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino were hurt in the middle of the season.
In 247 career NHL games, Porter has 29 goals and 58 points with a minus-26 rating. His best season came in 2010-11 when he scored 14 goals and 25 points for the Avalanche. In addition to Pittsburgh and Colorado, Porter has also played for Buffalo and Phoenix.
Porter, who actually didn’t appear in an NHL game during the 2014-15 season before signing with the Penguins, agreed to stay in Pittsburgh, signing a one-year, two-way deal worth $575,000 if he plays in the NHL.
Interestingly, both of these players will be coming back from season-ending injuries. Wilson required surgery on a lower-body injury in March and didn’t return to the ice just as he was beginning to heat up. Porter also underwent surgery in March on his ankle, which knocked him out for the remainder of the season.
Although there’s always some uncertainty with returning from injury, these two players, along with Sundqvist, will make up for the loss of Cullen. If not for his injury, there’s a strong chance Wilson would have impacted the Stanley Cup playoffs just as Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary did.
Instead, he will have to fight for a roster spot in training camp, but he’s more than capable of winning one. Really, it’s just a question of if there’s space on the roster — if Cullen resigns, there probably won’t be.
As for Porter, he is strictly insurance in the case Pittsburgh suffers several injuries up the middle. Remember, Eric Fehr can also play center, so if multiple centers go down for the Penguins like last season, Fehr and Wilson could both slide into that role or coach Mike Sullivan could place Porter in one of the center spots and Wilson along the wing.
Regardless of whether Cullen returns, Pittsburgh has options at center with Wilson and Porter.