PITTSBURGH (AP) – Matt Cullen is well aware of the Stanley Cup hangover. The longtime NHL forward helped the Carolina Hurricanes raise the trophy in joy in the spring of 2006 and watched from afar after signing with the New York Rangers while his former teammates missed the postseason completely the following season.
The trappings of success – and the considerable emotional and physical toll it takes to get to the top – make sustaining it all the more difficult.
Yet the 39-year-old Cullen is back for another run with the Pittsburgh Penguins anyway, returning for a 19th season in part because he still loves the game and in part because he doesn’t see the edge the team carried on its way to the franchise’s fourth Cup has dulled in the slightest. The proof came in the form of a three-on-three drill during a training camp practice that Cullen likened to a playoff atmosphere, even with the postseason still more than six months away.
“It would be easy to come in and have a bit of a lackadaisical camp and feel good about what you did last year,” Cullen said. “But I think guys have done a good job of turning the page.”
Pittsburgh’s bold-faced names included. Captain Sidney Crosby, mired in such a deep funk at the beginning of 2015-16 it seemed as if his prime had come and gone, backed up his Conn Smythe-winning performance as the playoff MVP by brilliantly leading Team Canada to victory in the World Cup of Hockey.
“I don’t have to look too far to think about how tough it was a year ago starting out the season,” Crosby said after picking up 10 points during the tournament. “I think I appreciate this a lot.”
And the shot to do it – well, at least the Cup part – again in 2017. Pittsburgh did little to tinker with the roster that toppled San Jose in six games in the Cup final, instead doubling down on the mix of talent, speed, youth and grit that gelled so fiercely when Mike Sullivan was promoted to replace Mike Johnston as head coach in the middle of December.
The only notable departures during the offseason were oft-injured forward Beau Bennett and veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy. Almost all of the free-agent deals they struck were of the two-way variety for players who will be asked to fill when the regulars get banged up. Regardless of who is out there, the task will be the same as it was since the day Sullivan took over: play fast, play aggressive and never stop working.
“I think we have a courageous group,” Sullivan said. “For me the best kind of toughness is the type of toughness that doesn’t allow your opponents to deter you from your game and what I’ve admired about our group was the focus of determination to play our game and not somebody else’s.”
Some things to look for as Pittsburgh tries to become the first team in nearly 20 years to repeat.
At some point the Penguins are going to have to decide who their No. 1 goaltender is after rookie Matt Murray played so solidly during the postseason after Marc-Andre Fleury went down with a concussion on the eve of the playoffs. Sullivan is committed to splitting the playing time fairly evenly, though Fleury will get the majority of the reps early as Murray recovers from a broken hand.
Both players insist they’re fine with whatever role they’re assigned and if they weren’t, it’s not like general manager Jim Rutherford particularly cares.
“I’m happy we have two good goalies regardless of whether they have injuries or not,” Rutherford said.
The “HBK” line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel was Pittsburgh’s most dynamic during the playoffs, combining for 56 points. Kessel led the way (12 goals, 10 assists) to exorcise some of the demons from his tumultuous time in Toronto. In the smooth-skating Hagelin and the savvy Bonino, Kessel found ideal running mates. While replicating that level of production will be difficult over the course of an 82-game season, it’s a pretty sweet starting point.
One of the reasons the Penguins let Lovejoy walk is because of a surplus of talent along the blue line, including 22-year-old Derrick Pouliot. The former first-round pick is still trying to put it all together after spending the last two years bouncing between the NHL and the minors. Sullivan has impressed upon Pouliot the importance of making the simple play instead of the hard one, a differentiation that Pouliot has often struggled with. The Penguins have paired him with Trevor Daley at times in the preseason in hopes Daley’s intelligent approach will rub off.