As the Pittsburgh Penguins began their 2011-12 season, there was a big question mark hanging over their locker room. Believe it or not, the question was about something other than when Sidney Crosby would suit up again.
The mystery involved one of the Penguins’ most physical players, Matt Cooke, and whether or not he’d be able to keep true to his words that he spoke after being suspended for the last part of the Pens’ 2011 season and the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Upon receiving that lengthy suspension, Cooke vowed that he would change the way he played.
But before we get to that part, let’s have a refresher course on Cooke’s history as a member of the Penguins.
Cooke joined the team in the 2008-09 season and became known for his pesky, physical style of play. He was a member of the Penguins team that fought back from 10th place in the Eastern Conference to earn the fourth seed in the playoffs on the heels of a midseason coaching change. The Pens rode their energy all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals to win their third Cup.
Although Cooke immediately proved valuable with 31 points that year, he began to run into trouble in the 2009-10 season.
In a game against the Boston Bruins, Cooke delivered a hit to center Marc Savard, who was knocked to the ice and taken out of the game on a stretcher. He was diagnosed a concussion that kept him out the rest of the regular season and part of the Bruins' playoff run. When the referee decided not to penalize Cooke and the NHL didn’t hand down any discipline, fans across the league were furious, and experts were dumbfounded.
Savard suffered a second concussion the next season and has not played since. Today, many still blame Cooke for ruining Savard’s career.
Last year, Cooke got into hot water again when he received a four-game suspension after hitting Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin from behind. It was an irresponsible play on Cooke’s part, but he showed he had learned little next month, when he elbowed New York Rangers Ryan McDonagh in the head.
That was when Colin Campbell, then serving as the NHL disciplinarian, suspended Cooke for the remainder of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs. Although Cooke said he was sorry for his actions, Ray Shero and Mario Lemieux made it clear that his antics would no longer be tolerated.
Cooke understood, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
I’m fortunate that Ryan McDonagh wasn’t hurt. I don’t want to hurt anybody. That’s not my intention. I know that I can be better…I made a mistake, and I’m the one that’s accountable for that. And I take full responsibility for it. I realize and understand, more so now than ever, I need to change.
At the time, many Pens fans were infuriated with Cooke and didn’t seem to take his words seriously. It didn’t help when the team dropped a 3-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and some wanted to direct their anger towards Cooke, who had proven valuable on the team’s penalty kill and was a solid scorer.
Cooke re-emphasized his desire to change his style of play in an August interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He stated that he had watched film of his hits to see what he was doing wrong and how he could do it right.
He also said that his wife Michelle’s health scare helped him put things in perspective and realized that he needed to change if he wanted to keep his livelihood for his family.
Michelle Cooke saw first-hand how upset her husband was after the game in which he hit McDonagh.
“Matt was still upset for a couple of days after that hit. That was the difference I noticed. This hit bothered him.”
Cooke felt that coming into 2011-12, this would be his one chance to become a different player, and he was willing to embrace it.
I’ve got this chance, and I need to look at it as an opportunity to show everybody that I can change my approach, that I can play within the rules. The rest of my career can be proving that it’s possible to change. It has to be about that. There’s no excuse for it not to be about that.
So far, Cooke has kept his promise to his family and to the Penguins organization.
Through 26 games, he has 11 points and a plus-one rating. Of his five goals, one was shorthanded, and another came on the power play. He is also seventh on the team with 22 blocked shots and sixth with 2:40 of ice time on the penalty kill.
But the most significant changes are in his physical play. Cooke has 34 hits this year, compared to last season, when he was second on the team with 192 hits. He also only has eight penalty minutes after putting up 124 in 2010-11.
Eight penalty minutes.
That’s pretty unbelievable to write when it comes to Matt Cooke.
Cooke has not delivered any hit or committed any play that has summoned him to a disciplinary hearing with new NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan. Cooke would probably receive a lengthy suspension if he were ever called to Shanahan, who made it clear early in his tenure that he was not tolerating a lot of nonsense, especially from repeat offenders.
While I admit that I have shown my disdain for Cooke in the past, I cannot deny that he has stayed true to his word and is as committed to the Penguins as ever. That is especially important for a squad that is on top of the Eastern Conference and a strong Stanley Cup contender.
If Cooke can stay on the right path, he can even become a leader on this team, wearing an “A” and perhaps getting an additional contract closer to the end of his current deal.
But before we look too far ahead, I think we should be grateful that we have a Matt Cooke who knows he can help the team, even if it means reforming the style of the game he’s played long before coming to Pittsburgh.