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Breakfast with Benz

Tim Benz: Don't buy Penguins signing Matt Cullen as 'leadership' move

| Tuesday, July 3, 2018, 6:51 a.m.
The Penguins' Matt Cullen raises the Stanley Cup after beating the Predators in the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday, June 11, 2017 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Matt Cullen raises the Stanley Cup after beating the Predators in the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday, June 11, 2017 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.

I'm ambivalent about the Matt Cullen signing . Clearly, he was a great story when he was in here in Pittsburgh and an important part of those two Stanley Cup championship teams in 2016 and 2017.

But when he went to Minnesota last offseason, it didn't wreck my world like it did for some others in the media and fans on Twitter. Similarly, now that he's back after signing a one-year, $650,000 contract this week, it's not really moving the needle for me.

The only way Cullen's re-acquisition will register much of an attention grab to me is if it somehow makes Jim Rutherford willing to punt on Derick Brassard. Now that Cullen is back, Rutherford may be willing to spin Brassard as a failed project, open cap space, find a winger somewhere else, elevate Riley Sheahan to the third-line center position and put Cullen back in a fourth-line center role.

Short of all those dominoes falling, this is just a depth move for the wings.

However, when Rutherford gave us the following quote while announcing Cullen's signing, it got my attention.

"We lacked some leadership last year. We lost some really key guys," Rutherford said. "We had hoped he'd come back last year. We also feel with the character of Jack Johnson and Matt Cullen going back in that room, we're going to get some of that back."

Really? The Penguins lacked leadership last year? Funny. I hadn't heard that from anyone in the Penguins' front office until Sunday. That wasn't a complaint that had been uttered during the season. Mike Sullivan certainly struck the opposite tone in his heartfelt letter to the public about how great of a crew he had coached in 2018.

In fact, the narrative that was spun during good points of the season last year was that Evgeni Malkin had emerged as a leader with guys such as Cullen and Chris Kunitz gone and that he was helping Sidney Crosby in that department. Similar things were said about players such as Brian Dumoulin and Patric Hornqvist.

Do you see my point? Discussions about leadership tend to be ascribed to fit a narrative that wants to be told.

Lose Cullen and Kunitz in free agency? It's OK. Geno is stepping into that role.

Get Cullen back in free agency? It's necessary because we lacked leadership last year.

Weird, huh?

There's no "Leadership Corsi" on some fancy stats site anywhere. So it's easy for general managers and coaches to morph that intangible to be as important as they want it to be based on circumstances.

Here's what I know. I know that after the Capitals eliminated the Penguins, the explanations offered up by Rutherford, Sullivan, and any Penguins fan with a social media account were as follows:

1. The Penguins finally lost to a worthy opponent that was due to win. It just so happened 2018 was their time.

2. The normally skill-oriented Penguins suddenly couldn't finish many golden chances against the Capitals, who were opportunistic.

3. Braden Holtby was simply better than Matt Murray.

4. After enjoying a healthier than normal season, injuries caught up to the Penguins in the form of dinged up guys such as Malkin, Brassard and Phil Kessel.

5. That darned parallax effect.

No one — and I mean no one — put this opinion out there: "Boy, the Penguins' lack of leadership was really evident against Washington, wasn't it?"

Look, if Rutherford wants Cullen back because that's his guy ... fine. If this is a precursor for another move, sure. If this means less Dominik Simon somehow, fantastic.

Just don't give me the "leadership" cliché to sell me on the need to bring back Cullen. Because the second half to that equation is that leadership was absent this spring. And if no one is ready to admit that as a reason for shortcomings in the failed three-peat attempt, don't expect me to buy it as a theoretical positive in 2019.

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