Pittsburgh Penguins: Matt Cooke's Rehabilitation off to Quiet, Successful Start

James ConleyContributor IIINovember 11, 2011

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 05:  Matt Cooke #24 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during warm up at Staples Center on November 5, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Lost in Sidney Crosby's near return, Evgeni Malkin's wonky knee, James Neal's unlimited goals and injuries to just about everyone else on the team, Matt Cooke's conduct—one of the biggest offseason question marks hovering over the Pittsburgh Penguins—has gone quietly under the radar.

Which is exactly how those in Pittsburgh would have it.

"I hurt my teammates last year and I know that," Cooke said this offseason. "I fully intend to make it up to them this year."

Cooke is off to a good start, with eight points to just two assessed penalties.

In this young season, Cooke has displayed a commitment to a new brand of hockey, one which nobody is taking issue with.

In fact, Cooke finished the month of October with his fewest single-month PIM total since 2009, according to SB Nation.

His new style has been on display all season, but one has to pay attention to the little plays away from the puck. Cooke is avoiding big hits along the boards, instead diving in to help scrum the puck off the walls. He's pursuing the puck rather than the puck carriers, and when he's leveled his hits this season, they've been textbook clean.

The occasional cries of goon have been misplaced, as Cooke has always been able to play the game. His new-found focus on contributing to the play, if at the expense of a highlight reel hit, has brought that to light.

Try convincing anyone of that last March.

Following Cooke's elbow to the head of New York's Ryan McDonagh last season (which drew a 17-game suspension), the third-liner was said to be in hot water with Penguins brass—not to mention every other team in the league.

"I think it's about time he gets [suspended]," Bruins forward Brad Marchand said at the time. "He needs to be taught a lesson."

It wasn't just other players who took issue with the repeated misconduct, but Cooke's superiors, too.

"Head shots have no place in hockey," Penguins GM Ray Shero said following the McDonagh suspension. "We've told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message."

His job in question, Cooke promised to change his ways. If pressure from his bosses wasn't enough, the NHL's renewed culture of player safety and supplemental discipline may have helped.

Brendan Shanahan took Colin Campbell's old post as VP of Player Safety this year and has very quickly turned an unpredictable and often toothless system of punishment into a suspension factory.

Under Shanahan's watch, 14 players have been suspended in just over a month of play (incl. preseason) for a total of 78 games (46 regular season, 28 preseason), including tens of thousands of dollars in requisite paychecks lost.

You can follow the list of suspensions here.

Before the preseason opened and Shanahan amply demonstrated that he wouldn't hesitate to hand out discipline, Matt Cooke's was the big name in bold print on the list of players to monitor.

His career numbers aren't flattering. Cooke has been suspended five times in his career, four times with the Penguins since 2009. He's lost 27 games to suspension (including seven playoff games), and three of his five suspensions have been for elbows or contact with opponent's heads.

The Savard hit, perhaps his most infamous, went unpenalized and unsuspended.

Cooke has nicely avoided discipline of any kind so far, tallying just four penalty minutes in 15 games, a pair of minors for the harmless acts of diving and interference.

Cleaning up his act is something Cooke has said he's aimed for since late last season.

"It's a mentality, it's how I'm going to approach the game,'' Cooke said. "And the team has worked hard in supporting me to accomplish these minor tweaks in my game.''

Is it really fair to call him the "new" Matt Cooke? Maybe not. He's always had the game to play at the NHL level, which is important. Real NHL general managers don't value the PIM column like fantasy GM's.

Cooke's bosses are likely among the happiest to see that his long-awaited "change" is off to a good start.

"I'd prefer to be part of the solution to rehabbing [Cooke] as a player as opposed to making the decision to toss him overboard to be somebody else's problem and say, 'We did our part,'" Shero said. "He's a value to our team when he plays hockey.

"For him to stay in the league and be a player in this league, he's going to have to do that."

So far, so good.