Lacing Up: Cooke-ing Up A Controversy
The late Ashley Gallant was the originator of “Lacing Up,” and its reincarnation is in her honor. Each week, Matt Bodenschatz, Zach Boslett, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF.
Zach Boslett: So it has been a long while since we churned out one of these. Much too long. But with all of the bad news the Penguins have received over the past few weeks it is now time to talk about the most recent string of bad news, or bad hits, in the form of Matt Cooke.
He has seemed much more reckless lately with his hits and antics. He has 36 penalty minutes in his last 4 games and now a 4 game suspension. The team is shorthanded without Crosby, Malkin, Letestu, and now Kunitz is day to day… losing a tough, but skilled player with 10 goals under his belt is yet another reckless play by Cooke that could even be considered selfish.
You can skirt punishment only so many times and your most recent reckless selfish hit on Fedor Tyutin was the straw that broke Cam(b)ell’s back.
Matt Bodenschatz: Yeah, it’s been a whirlwind month-plus on my end — a lot going on in my personal and professional life, which has taken away from my FF contributions. Hopefully things are slowing down for a while, as I have missed our “Lacing Up” conversations.
Anyway, regarding Cooke, you’re right. He has been too reckless of late and seems to be making a habit of crossing the line, as opposed to flirting with it. I never condone a dirty hit and I never will. I also think players need to remember their status as a member of a team. As you said, Cooke’s hit on Tyutin was selfish. He was thinking in the moment and forget the situation his team currently finds itself in, and let’s not forget that he ignored the well-being of an opponent.
Now, already without the players you mentioned, the Penguins also have to find a way to replace Cooke, who by most accounts, is one of the leaders on the team, and certainly one of the veterans on the team. That being said, I’m hearing a lot of talk, including from our own Mike Adams, that the Penguins should gauge interest in Cooke around the league with the possibility of trading him. Selfish/dirty play or not, the man is a beast on the penalty kill, he’s a dominant forechecker, and he’s a pain in the butt to play against. If the Penguins make some calls, they’ll find 29 teams are interested in Cooke — which is precisely why he should be going nowhere.
Zach: Jarkko Ruutu always had this said about him, “You hate playing against him but you love him if he’s on your team.”
The same thing applies to Matt Cooke. The Penguins have a very tough, physical player with a decent goal scoring touch who has crossed the line a few too many times in recent games.
But you are right – most teams in the NHL would love to have a player like Cooke on their teams. I think Boston would probably pass for obvious reasons though…
I would not even flirt about trading Cooke unless the demand for him was so high it would be stupid to say no. When he is not head hunting, he is an extremely effective hockey player – even if he is a punk when it comes time to answer for his antics.
Chris Neil is one of the most sought after names at the deadline for each of the past three seasons. Sean Avery got $4 million from the Stars on the open market. Steve Ott just got a big new deal. Alex Burrows is an invaluable player because he can hit, fight, and instigate opponents while scoring 30+ goals.
Those players are dirty, borderline type players. But Matt Cooke is starting to be labeled as “the dirtiest player in the league” (how soon we forget Chris Simon…). He needs to be much more careful because I doubt he would get the benefit of the doubt ever again from the officials, media, Bettman and Co., and most importantly the fans.
I have no problem with the Ovechkin hit – it was borderline dirty but it was a rivalry game, revenge on a dirty hit by Steckel, revenge on a dirty hit by Ovechkin on Cooke himself, and general payback against Washington’s biggest star for some of their antics over the past few games against that team.
But the hit against Tyutin was inexcusable. Yes, he could have protected himself. But he did not and Cooke cannot hit him in that situation. This is not 1975 anymore. Times have changed.
Cooke needs to be more careful and not cross the line again or the punishment will be much more severe than 4 games and $80,000+. However, Cooke cannot go into a shell and avoid contact because then he is nowhere near as effective as he could be and should be.
Matt: I can think of a few other Penguins who had the reputation of “love to play with him, hate to play against him.” Ulf Samuelsson, Darius Kasparaitis, and maybe even Matthew Barnaby (though to a lesser extent). And, when looking around the NHL, as you demonstrated, most teams have a borderline/dirty player patrolling the ice. Some of those players carry a bit more skill than others — Burrows and Ott, as you mentioned, and how about Corey Perry? Others tend to be more along the lines of grinders — Neil, Ruutu, etc.
But Cooke, like Avery, is somewhere in the middle. There’s enough skill there to be more than just a fourth liner, but not enough skill to be a scoring winger. And there-in could lie part of the problem with Cooke. This season, more than any other, we’re seeing Cooke in an elevated role, playing more minutes on a line where he is being counted on more than ever. He’s always been a vaulable penalty killer and forechecker whose goals were icing on the cake. Now, this season, he’s skated with Evgeni Malkin on the second line and, since the injuries to Crosby and Malkin, he’s part of the “first” line with Staal and Kennedy.
That’s a lot of pressure. And, when the team starts counting on you a bit more, maybe you try to do too much. In Cooke’s case, I think it’s entirely possible he’s trying to ramp up his game with more physicality to make up for his offensive shortcomings during this time of goal-scoring need. In other words, he’s doing what he knows best, with hopes of helping his team.
Problem is, as I said before, his global team-first mentality has transitioned on occasion to a selfish in-the-moment mentality, which is proving more harmful than good. He needs to cool it a bit and return to the game that he knows best: playing a physical, gritty, fast-paced game that is borderline dirty — not full-on dirty.
Zach: I agree with Cooke trying to do too much but if that causes him to play dirty, get misconducts that shorten the bench, and lengthy suspensions… shouldn’t the coaching staff step in and ask him to calm down a little bit?
One problem I see arising from borderline hits and such is that the Penguins are being labeled a “dirty” team or above the law when it comes to suspensions. Fans around the league want Cooke suspended for every little thing he does wrong these days simply because he is Matt Cooke. Fans on twitter the other night were calling for Cooke to be removed from the NHL ala Chris Simon.
While that is unnecessary, the point remains is that Cooke is hurting his team on and off the ice with his questionable hits and he needs to reign in his ferocity towards opponents before someone gets seriously hurt or he gets suspended for an even longer amount of time.
There are double standards in the NHL when it comes to officiating and punishments. Cooke is a repeat repeat repeat offender and the suspension length will keep increasing with each disciplinary hearing Cooke will need to attend.
We all saw Jordan Staal’s automatic one game suspension revoked after his “punch” on Brandon Prust because he has no prior record, Prust is a tough guy, and it was part of a scrum.
If Cooke were to punch Gaborik in that situation… I would think he would get at least a 5 game suspension.
Cooke needs to understand he will get no more breaks. And thus he needs to be extra careful on the ice or he will hurt his team once again.
Matt: I don’t think the higher management and ownership of the Penguins are all that concerned of what others think of them. As long as their fans continue to support their team, they’ll keep playing as they do. Because of that, I’m of the belief that Cooke is not only encouraged, but expected, to play with an edge, to play along the line, and occasionally make a dirty play. Don’t believe me? Why else would they have signed him as soon as they lost Jarkko Ruutu a few years back? Why else would Cooke have gotten a three-year contract with a no-trade clause over the summer?
Team officials love what he brings to the table, and if it means taking the occasional suspension, they’ll deal with it. And let’s face it, Cooke’s name will never be clear. He will carry the “dirty” label with him until he retires. As such, he is beyond the point of getting breaks from opponents, from referees, and from Colin Campbell.
Ultimately, Cooke helps this team more than he hurts it, despite sometimes being a bit more selfish than many would like. That being said, I’ll gladly take him on my roster as opposed to an opponent’s roster.
Zach: Trust me, I agree that Cooke’s hard working, physical play is a definite plus for the Penguins. It is his propensity to step over the line that is the big minus.
But his dirty play can cause problems, as we’re seeing Mario Lemieux’s comments about the league and their failure to properly punish the perpetrators on Long Island is being dismissed as hypocrisy just because Cooke plays for Lemieux.
Cooke plays the game too hard. He hits to intimidate. He barks at opponents to knock them off their game. He’s not Todd Bertuzzi or Chris Simon trying to purposefully injure opponents.
But he does need to calm down a bit.