RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – The Carolina Hurricanes apparently figured that no one can replace Matt Cullen in their lineup quite like, well, Matt Cullen.
After spending last season looking for someone to fill the position Cullen made his own during their Stanley Cup title run, the Hurricanes reacquired him from the New York Rangers on Tuesday for defenseman Andrew Hutchinson, a prospect and a draft pick.
Cullen had a career year in coach Peter Laviolette’s fast-skating system in 2006, giving the Hurricanes some scoring punch behind Eric Staal, Erik Cole and Cory Stillman. But the Hurricanes struggled to fill Cullen’s third-line center spot after he signed a four-year, $11.2 million deal with the Rangers as a free agent last summer.
He hopes he can help Carolina – which missed the playoffs last year – find the same magic again.
“Any time you win a Stanley Cup, you’d love another run at it,” Cullen said. “My style of play fits there under Peter and with those guys. That’s been the best fit that I’ve ever had in my career for sure.”
Cullen became expendable when the Rangers signed centers Chris Drury from Buffalo and Scott Gomez from New Jersey earlier this month. He is scheduled to make about $2.8 million this season.
This deal gives New York $2.4 million of much-needed salary-cap space. Carolina, which resigned forwards Ray Whitney and Scott Walker while signing free agent center Jeff Hamilton from Chicago, will see its payroll increase to $44.7 million from about $40 million last season.
Hurricanes president and general manager Jim Rutherford said the team was slightly over budget for next season, but that it couldn’t pass on the chance to reacquire Cullen.
“This is a player we’re very familiar with,” Rutherford said. “He was part of our championship team and we believe with him coming back it makes our team stronger.”
Cullen set career highs with 25 goals and 49 points during the 2005-06 season, including four goals and 14 assists in the playoffs. After he left, the Hurricanes tried several options – including Eric Belanger and Josef Vasicek – at the position but never found the same steady production.
Cullen finished with 16 goals and 25 assists with New York, which lost to Buffalo in the second round of the playoffs. But he knew that the Rangers’ offseason spending spree made his future there unclear.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said. “I had heard some rumors, but certainly I’m happy that it worked out.
“It was disappointing to have to leave (Carolina) and not many guys get a second place at a chance like that. I’m very appreciative to Jim Rutherford for bringing me back and hopefully we can do it again.”
To get him back, Carolina also sent forward Joe Barnes and a third-round pick in the 2008 draft to the Rangers.
Hutchinson will earn $500,000 for the 2007-08 season and can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. He had three goals and 11 assists for Carolina.
Barnes, a third-round pick of the Hurricanes in 2005, had two goals and an assist in 15 games with Albany of the AHL last year.