Lacing Up: Has "The Cookie Monster" Returned?
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Matt Paul: Josh, we’ve gotten off-track the last week or so, with “Lacing Up,” but hopefully we’re back in a groove with some needle-moving topics. Let’s take a look at a topic that has been relatively hot over the last week: the Erik Karlsson injury, and more specifically, Matt Cooke’s role in causing it. But first, as a recap, let’s watch the video replay. The sequence begins at the 0:28 mark.
After viewing the evidence, I see nothing egregious about the hit. Cooke skates in for the hit and lifts his left leg to aid in pinning Karlsson to the boards, all while looking to the right. We’re talking about a common, everyday, run-of-the-mill hit, here. It’s ridiculous to suggest his intent was to sneak his skate blade behind the heel of Karlsson’s boot, and I think it’s difficult to prove he was trying to cut Karlsson, as his skate blade was angled downward.
Listen, I’m as upset as anyone to see Karlsson injured. He’s an unbelievably dynamic player and is one of the few players in the league who single-handledly puts butts in seats. He’s that amazing. But injuries often happen without the involvement of malicious intent. How do you view the hit, Josh, and can you justify the accounts that portray Cooke as a villain in this instance?
Joshua Neal: I’ll preface this by saying that I have to agree that I don’t believe there was any malice behind this play. Cooke is doing his job, killing the penalty, and pinning the team’s most dynamic offensive player to the boards. The game has legislated so much of the arms in holding that guys are using their skates routinely. You run this play 100 more times and Karlsson absorbs the blow, maybe gets pinned, but doesn’t get hurt. But sometimes injuries, even freak injuries, just happen. See: 2011 Pittsburgh Penguins.
I will also follow by saying that I understand Ottawa fans and their frustration, because of the same reason. When Evgeni Malkin tore up his knee, it was in large part to Tyler Myers being unable to skate like a real human being. Was it a dirty play? No. Was I upset with Myers? Yes, because he took an MVP-caliber player out of an already depleted Penguins lineup.
The other thing at hand is Matt Cooke’s history. If it’s any other player here, it’s a “freak accident.” But because it’s Matt Cooke and his tattered past of hits to the head and suspensions, suddenly the guy who has looked like a choir boy by comparison since the beginning of the 2012 season is once again being (by some) likened to the “goon” of the past. I haev a feeling you have some evidence to show that Cooke is not the same player now as he was then, right Matt?
Matt: I sure do, Josh. Following the 2010-11 season, which saw Cooke tally 129 penalty minutes and ended with a hefty suspension that forced him to shape up or be shipped out of Pittsburgh, he went above and beyond to change his game. He sought help off the ice to change his line of thinking, and on the ice, he changed his approach. No longer did he hit everyone in sight, but instead, he assessed the situation and followed through only on hits that were “safe.”
As a result, his penalty minutes decreased to 44 in an 82 game season — the third lowest tally of his career, beat out only by his first two abbreviated seasons. If we look at his numbers, he went from 1.23 PIMs per game over the first 12 seasons of his career to .53 PIMs per game last season. What’s more, he refrained from the five-minute major penalties and, more importantly, suspensions.
It was a drastic transformation for a player who was on the verge of being kicked off the Penguins roster and quite possibly out of the league. And it’s a transformation that has continued this season, as he tallied just eight PIMs through 14 games (.57 per game), excluding the 10 minute misconduct he received for being Chris Neil’s punching bag late Wednesday. People like to believe that change can’t happen, but the above is proof that it does. Cooke is a new man, and the treatment he’s receiving from fans and those within the Senators organization — but not the national media — is downright unfair.
Josh: It is nice that the national media has been relatively defensive as far as Cooke’s culpability here. In fact, many are pointing to the fact that the puck had just hit the netting and the play should have been blown dead just prior to the impending clear and forecheck that caused Karlsson’s fateful injury. It’s an unfortunate turn of events, and Cooke appears to be the victim of circumstance, rather than Karlsson being the victim of Cooke’s malice.
But sometimes it’s hard to view things that way. You have to look at an Ottawa team that was overachieving versus expectations already this season. They just learned a few days ago that Jason Spezza would be getting back surgery and missing the rest of the regular season. The guy finished top-5 in scoring last year. Then, the top scoring defenseman in the league, who was really helping their offensive production stay on track, goes down for the year as well. The frustration is understandable.
But for me, the backlash against Cooke is unfair. As you’ve pointed out, he has gone to great lengths to change his game, and while one can’t completely erase his past from memory, this particular play doesn’t look to be filled with intent to injure. I mean, Matt Cooke got a Lady Byng (Sportsmanship) vote last year. Now Senators’ owner Eugene Melnyk says Cooke doesn’t belong in the “league:http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nhl-puck-daddy/outraged-senators-owner-eugene-melnyk-wants-cooke-league-163439426—nhl.html>?
Once again, I understand the frustration. But isn’t this a bit extreme, Matt?
Matt: It’s more than “a bit extreme.’ It’s flat out unprofessional and unbecoming of the league. If this was the NFL, Melnyk would be heavily fined for his ridiculous words.
And let’s not for a minute think Melnyk is running a clean ship up there. This is a guy who employs Chris Neil (whom his coach sent on the ice late in the game to take out Cooke) and also employed Andy Sutton and Matt Carkner — all within the last few seasons. His team also is on record threatening Sidney Crosby last season after getting involved in net-front scrums, citing Crosby’s ability to dish it out, but not take it.
I get it. I understand that he’s frustrated, as is the entire organization and its fans. We’ve been through this as Penguins fans who watched the Long Island brawl a few years back. The Penguins, including owner Mario Lemieux, were not so quiet about their feelings following the game. But there’s one stark difference here: what happened in Long Island was a pre-meditated, calculated attack in retaliation for a hit in a previous game, while what happened in Ottawa was 100 percent accidental.
Hey, if Melnyk wants all kickers and stompers out of the league, why didn’t he speak up a few years back when Peter Regin’s skate blade cut Dion Phaneuf? Apparently his war on accidents hadn’t begun yet?
Josh: The NHL is a league with emotion, just like any other league. But there is something going wrong when the emotion on the ice AND the emotion off the ice lead to issues like this. To me, for the NHL to even come out and say “we won’t be reviewing the Matt Cooke play” is even going too far. If it was an accident, which we both believe it truly was, then why even issue a statement in the first place? As a Senators fan, I think that would just grind my gears a bit more.
You bring up a good point though. No one runs a “clean ship” as it were. Some more so than others, but either way, I think something is completely clear here. The NHL is one of the only major sports where owners get away with saying things like this, on record, about players, officials, and others. Aside from a few exceptions (Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks), owners are silent and professional. To have emotional meltdowns and call out players is childish and unbecoming of the game. In other leagues, the two prior examples I’ve cited pay fines and receive reprimands for their actions.
In the face of a labor shortage where the owners didn’t look that great to begin with, this is certainly no way to behave. If the league wanted to be more than the “Garage League” that Mario called it many years back (which should have also been punished, mind you), they’d answer this kind of chicanery swiftly with a punishment. But smart money says they won’t, and the cycle spins madly on.