Can Matt Cooke ever learn his lesson?
Cooke has already been suspended once this season after a board on Fedor Tyutin of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Once he received a four-game ban, head coach Dan Bylsma spoke to Cooke and told him that he has to change his game.
I don’t pretend to know the specifics of Bylsma’s message, but whatever he said did not stick.
In Sunday’s game, Cooke elbowed New York Rangers rookie Ryan McDonagh in the head. He was given a five-minute penalty and a game misconduct, which allowed the Rangers to take over and secure a 5-2 victory.
Bylsma condemned Cooke for the hit, which put the team in a bad spot in a divisional game and embarrassed a Penguins organization that has been very vocal about removing head shots from the game, or at least implementing harsher penalties for players who engage in such actions.
This afternoon, the NHL announced that Cooke will be suspended for the rest of the regular season and the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Penguins general manager Ray Shero came out with a strong statement after the decision was handed down. He stated that the team supports the NHL’s decision, and reiterated that Cooke has been told that the kind of shot he laid on McDonagh has no place in the game.
I realize that Cooke is a popular player in the Penguins' locker room and among Pittsburgh’s fans. However, this is not about being a nice guy or how many people buy your jerseys.
To me, there is one big way the Penguins can really send Cooke a message.
Regardless of whether Cooke returns this season for a playoff run or in time for the 2011-12 season, he should no longer be bearing the “A” of an alternate captain.
Does it sound a little extreme? Maybe, but in my mind failing to learn from past punishments and refusing to change your game after you have been spoken to is not characteristic of a leader.
If the Penguins don't pull Cooke’s alternate captaincy, it will send a negative message to the team. It will show them there's no big deal about committing a play that not only cost the team a game, but also could have caused serious injury.
Pittsburgh would also be saying that even though they have talked to Cooke about his actions, they don't really have any intention of making sure he learns from his mistakes.
Sure, Cooke may be a valuable offensive player (he has 30 points through 67 games), but only when he is not endangering the well-being of his fellow players.
Teammates past and present may have said he is a good guy, but you can’t make an argument like that when deciding whether he should be punished and for how long.
Someone who is one of the main reasons why the league is trying to crack down on potentially dangerous plays is not a leader.
Well, actually he might be, but not in the positive sense that teams look for when selecting captains and alternate captains.
I feel that Cooke is no longer a good leader for the Penguins team, and he is no longer worthy of wearing a letter on his jersey.
In an article I commented on earlier today, another reader disagreed with my suggestion to strip Cooke of his “A.” He said it would hurt the team to pull Cooke’s leadership position and send a negative message.
While I respect this reader’s point of view, I have to say one thing.
Cooke does not think about the consequences of his actions. No matter what the powers that be in Pittsburgh have to say, he continues to be careless.
He does not think of his team and the well-being of his opponents.
If he was a real leader (and someone who showed more regard for the welfare of his opponents and how his team was performing), he would have thought twice before doing what he did to Tyutin or McDonagh. If he were more careful, the idea of saying he doesn’t deserve to be an alternate captain would have never crossed my mind.
Many Pens fans are starting to wish Cooke would be let go by the team, but that's probably not going to happen. He was signed through 2013 this offseason, and his new contract came with a no-movement clause. Obviously, he would have to agree to waive this clause.
Furthermore, the Penguins probably do not want to release Cooke only to have him join another team and unleash his antics on Pittsburgh’s own stars.
Since Cooke is not likely to leave Pittsburgh, removing his leadership position is the best way for the Penguins to add to the message the NHL has already delivered.
Even if it doesn't happen, Cooke needs to learn, and I truly hope that this time a good long stay in the press box is enough to get the hint.