Matt Cullen has done just about everything with the Penguins this season. First line left winger. Fourth line center. Penalty kill. Power play. With the exception of goal, he's been pressed into duty with just about every conceivable position.
So when Eric Fehr left last night's 6-5 home win against the Senators in the second period due to a "lower-body" injury, it wasn't anything new for Cullen when he was pressed into Fehr's spot on the third line.
"He does it all," said defenseman Ben Lovejoy. "He's been awesome at filling almost every role for our team. He's one of our top penalty killers. He's getting some time on the power play now. He's played all three forward positions and leads our team in faceoff percentage. He's done just an awesome job and that doesn't touch what he's done off the ice. He's an incredible professional the way he treats his body, how seriously he takes the game and how he's fit into a lineup of a very young team and been one of the guys but also been a leader."
Being versatile isn't an accident for Cullen. It's been a signature trade of his for much of his career. In various stops throughout his career, he has even been a regular as a point man on the power play.
Earlier today, he talked about his versatility, how he hones so many different skills for so many different positions and how he's been able to be multi-faceted at age 39.
Monday, you mentioned how you work on different skillsets in the offseason in order to stay sharp in terms of playing different positions. When some people go to the gym, they have a "legs day" or a "back day." Do you have a "left wing day" or "penalty killing" day in the summer?
"No, I guess I'm mostly talking about on the ice stuff. As I've gotten older in my career, I started getting on the ice [earlier]. I used to stay off the ice until probably mid-July which is pretty common. I got on the ice now in June. I've always feared getting too far away from game shape as I get older so I kind of stay in it. I'm on the ice a lot. So I do a lot of stuff. Over the years, I've probably played 10 years on the point on the power play. So I would spend a lot of time working on different things from the blue line, moving laterally along the blue line. Different things like that. Later in my career, I started playing a lot more wing along with center so I would work on picking up pucks off the wall and attacking and just handling pucks off the wall. Little things like that where when I was starting my career, I would never think about working on. As I've gone along and played different roles, I know through the course of the season you can be called upon to do different things. I take that opportunity and that time to work on those things that might come up."
Expand on that part about working on skills as a defenseman. What kind of things do you work on there?
"I do it parts of a lot of practices. Throughout the summer, I'll have days where I don't necessarily skate myself. I'll just go out and spend an hour and just work on my skills. So it's not necessarily a fatiguing practice but I'll take a bunch of pucks and catch a puck on my backhand on the blue line. … I'll be on the blue line and catch a puck on my backhand and pull it across the blue line to the middle and shoot it. Little small things like that where it's something as a forward, you don't do a whole lot. Just moving forward to backward and opening up with the puck, pivoting, backwards to forwards. Small things that if you're called up to play in that spot, at least you have some comfort with it."
At what point in your career did you start to diversify your training?
"I guess probably when I first went to Carolina [in 2005, head coach] Peter Laviolette, the first day of training camp, asked me if I could play the point on the power play. I was like, 'Yeah, for sure,' never having done it. Then I did it and I played there from day one to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. Since then, I've played quite a bit on the point on the power play. He actually talked a lot to me about it because at the trade deadline that year, we picked up [right winger Mark Recchi] and [center] Dougie Weight. So I was moved to the wing which I hadn't played a lot of and he talked about how valuable it is to be a versatile player. It was something I took to heart so that was the time I really started spending a lot of time in the summer. I guess that was 10 years ago."
That probably is a big reason you're still playing at 39.
"I think so. Being able to adapt to different situations and being comfortable with it."
A lot of players who play until their late 30s or early 40s tend to be one dimensional. Someone like a Jaromir Jagr or a Teemu Selanne, as great as they are, they're "only" a top-six winger. They're not going to kill penalties or be a point man on the power play. How have you been able to do that despite your age?
"I don't know. I guess if you're not good enough at one thing, you should be good at a lot of things. I was never a superstar or a top guy. I always try to be good at a lot of things. I was working on everything I could. I guess I've been lucky that way."
You've also been lucky in that you haven't seemed to deal with any sort of major injuries in your career.
"No doubt. No question. I've had some [injuries] here or there but absolutely, that plays a big part in it. And along with that, the fortune of coming across the right players at the right time in my career. I played with [Mighty Ducks left winger] Paul Kariya early on in my career and I don't think I've ever seen anybody spend more time studying the game of hockey and working on his body than Paul. I learned a lot from him. And seeing a guy like [former Hurricanes center] Roddy Brind'Amour, the way he put himself into it. That group in Carolina, when we won [the Stanley Cup], had a lot of guys, for me that was a perfect time because I learned so much. It was kind of a crossroads in my career. I guess I was 29 and I learned a lot from guys like Dougie Weight and [defnesemen] Bret Hedican and [left winger] Ray Whitney and Rod Brind'Amour. There's a long list of guys that you're like 'Oh yeah, I know him.' It was a really cool time for me because I learned so much. We had a successful season. It helped me sort of make a big change in the way I do things and I think that has a lot to do with being here."
(Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)