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Mark Madden

Mark Madden: Too many centers a 'good' problem for Penguins?

| Tuesday, July 3, 2018, 6:45 p.m.
The Wild's Matt Cullen plays against the Penguins in the first period Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Wild's Matt Cullen plays against the Penguins in the first period Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.
Minnesota Wild center Matt Cullen (7) reacts after scoring a goal against the San Jose Sharks during the first period of an NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif., Saturday, April 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Minnesota Wild center Matt Cullen (7) reacts after scoring a goal against the San Jose Sharks during the first period of an NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif., Saturday, April 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Besides goaltender, center is the most important position in the NHL. You can never have too many good centers.

But the Penguins might.

That's not a problem. Except for the center who gets scratched. Or for the winger who gets scratched because a center plays wing.

All this depends on your definition of “good.”

Matt Cullen turns 42 on Nov. 2. Is he still good, or just good for an old guy? Only 16 non-goalies have played in the NHL at 42 or older. Twelve were forwards. Cullen has fewer points than all but one.

That's Frank Boucher, a Hall-of-Famer on the list because he ditched retirement to play 15 games as the New York Rangers' player-coach in 1943-44. He collected 14 points against a bunch of 4-Fs, or whatever they're called in Canada.

Ex-Penguin Gary Roberts is also one of the 12 forwards. Roberts played well past his prime because everybody was too scared to tell him he couldn't.

Ten goalies played at 42, including former Penguins coach and GM Eddie Johnston. They just stand there, after all.

Cullen, known as “Dad,” is a locker-room presence and glue guy. He rejoins the Penguins after a year's absence.

I envy the Penguins. When my dad left, he never came back. (I'm never going to get tired of that one.)

Can Cullen still play?

Good question. He'll be 42, as mentioned. He had 22 points in 77 games last season. He excels at the little things: Faceoffs, penalty-killing, etc.

That oxygen tank makes skating tough, though. Boucher would be proud: Cullen is his last living teammate.

Cullen is useful. But he might serve best playing in 50-60 games, jumping all over the depth chart and having something left for the playoffs.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are also useful, especially if coach Mike Sullivan can properly assign linemates.

That's more difficult than it sounds.

Jake Guentzel thrives on Crosby's left. The best fit on Crosby's right is Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist's style makes Crosby play down low, where he's most effective. But Crosby prefers somebody with more speed and touch through the neutral zone. Bryan Rust has the speed but not the touch.

Phil Kessel never plays 5-on-5 with Sid. There's a reason for that.

Crosby likes skating with Dominik Simon. That's problematic. Based on talent, Simon should be a healthy scratch at season's start.

Kessel works fine on Malkin's right. But the only left wing that properly complements Malkin and Kessel is Carl Hagelin thanks to his skating and defensive acumen. Hagelin doesn't need (deserve) the puck, either, as 10 goals last season indicates. But should someone with 10 goals be in the top six?

If Sullivan wants to further pursue balance (and keep Kessel unhappy), he can use Kessel on Derick Brassard's line.

Hornqvist and Rust would be the top-six wingers, which leaves Daniel Sprong on the fourth line — and that doesn't work. OK, put Sprong in the top six — and that makes Rust a $3.5 million fourth-line right wing. That doesn't work, either. Or maybe a third-line left wing, which Rust wouldn't be so good at.

See? Told you it's more difficult than it sounds.

At least Riley Sheahan's role is clearly defined. He's a fourth-line center. Uh, wait … so is Cullen. Darn.

This will take a greater mind than mine to figure, since I obviously can't. And I didn't even mention Zach Aston-Reese.

Maybe GM Jim Rutherford isn't done making moves.

Rutherford spoke about a center moving to wing, naming Brassard, Cullen and Sheahan as possibilities. That would relieve the glut at center but create a further logjam at wing.

Brassard as a top-six wing intrigues, though, and he's great insurance at top-six center should Crosby or Malkin get hurt.

But trading Brassard seems possible. He played hurt during the playoffs but never adapted properly even before. Brassard has spent virtually his entire career as a top-six center. In Pittsburgh, those jobs are taken.

Cullen is, above all, a bargain, having signed a one-year contract that pays $650,000. Zero risk is involved.

Rutherford evoked a laugh when he spoke about the Penguins lacking leadership. A fourth-line center's leadership capabilities are limited by the relative insignificance of his job. This past season's team had 17 players who won the Stanley Cup the season prior. It was not a room in need of guidance.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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