When Matt Cullen steps on the ice Tuesday night for the Pittsburgh Penguins in their game against the Florida Panthers, he’ll become just the 20th player in NHL history to play 1,500 career games, an incredible feat for a guy who watched 34 players get selected before him in the 1996 draft. With the game, Cullen will also pass Mike Modano for second on the all-times games played list for American-born players.
Matt Cullen is 42 years old and he’s been on the verge of retirement every year for about the past five. In fact, he signed a one-year deal with the Minnesota Wild last season in part to return to his home state and prepare for life after hockey. But here he is, back in Pittsburgh on a one-year deal, anchoring the fourth line, killing penalties and taking key faceoffs.
In an era when it seems the NHL is becoming more of a young man’s league and veterans are losing the battle of attrition, players such as Cullen have used conditioning and superior on-ice intellect to continue competing long past their best-before dates. Which then leads to the notion that it’s possible two of the most prestigious benchmarks for games played could be surpassed in the next couple of years by Cullen and Patrick Marleau.
Let’s deal with Cullen first. If he plays the rest of Pittsburgh’s games this season, he’ll have appeared in 1,516, which would put him 135 behind freak of nature Chris Chelios for No. 1 all-time among American-born players (and fifth on the NHL’s all-time list). That means Cullen would have to play almost two seasons in order to pass Chelios. At the very least, he’d need to earn two more one-year deals, with a buffer of 28 games over those two seasons to accommodate for injuries and/or healthy scratches.
It might be a tall order for Cullen, but it’s one that’s certainly possible. Cullen missed 11 games with a broken ankle earlier this season, but has been a pretty durable player late in his career. “He feels better than he ever has,” said Cullen’s agent, Pat Morris. “Nothing would surprise me. He plays like he’s 32 because he skates so well.”
Another thing working in Cullen’s favor is that if he can stay with the Penguins, he’ll be with an organization that has the biggest dearth of young prospects in the NHL, which would make the possibility of him being pushed out by a younger player less likely. A proven player who can still compete and keep up at the NHL level and do so for a reduced price, all the while reliably filling 10 to 13 minutes of ice time per game, can be a significant asset. In fact, there is not a forward on the Penguins who logs as much of the 2:09 in shorthanded ice time per game that Cullen does.
Now onto Marleau, who is finding himself climbing the games-played chart seemingly every time he steps on the ice and could be within striking distance of the grand daddy of them all, Gordie Howe’s record of 1,767 games. Like Cullen, Marleau has no problem getting around the ice with players 10 years younger. He hasn’t yet reached his 40th birthday and has a year left on his deal and he has been remarkably durable. If he manages to play all 16 of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ final 16 games, he will have gone 10 full seasons without missing a single game.
He will also be at 1,657 games, which will move him ahead of Mark Recchi for fifth on the all-time list, 210 behind Howe. Marleau still has a year left on his deal in Toronto, which would reduce that number to 128 if he plays all 82 games for the Leafs in the 2019-20 season. Like Cullen, Marleau would need at least two contract years in order to catch Howe for top spot.
The bad news for Marleau is that he’s on pace to record his second-worst statistical full season since his rookie year and he looks to be clearly in decline. There is a lot to be said for the leadership/mentorship he brings to the young players and has clearly bonded with franchise players Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. The Leafs wouldn’t save anything on his $6.25 million cap hit by buying him out and he has a no-movement clause. If this season truly represents a portent of things to come, Marleau will face long odds in his pursuit of Mr. Hockey.
But the fact that both Cullen and Marleau are even in the conversation to catch all-time greats such as Chelios and Howe is a testament to their staying power in a league ruled by youth. And speaking of veterans excelling, if Sidney Crosby scores a point Tuesday night, he’ll hit the 1,200 mark for his career. And it’s a pretty good bet the 31-year-old will do that, since he has scored at least a point in 10 of his past 11 games and has 6-16-22 totals in that span.