Name: Matt Cooke
Status: Unrestricted free agent beginning July 5
Expiring Contract: Three years, $1.8 million cap hit

The Scoop: Matt Cooke has had a tumultuous career with the Penguins, finding himself earning a reputation as one of the dirtiest players in the NHL. But following a 2011 suspension that kept him out of the playoffs, he was forced to change his game or lose his job. Change he did, and now he’s become one of the more valuable third liners in the game.

Matt Paul: Say what you want about Matt Cooke — and many have nothing but bad to say — but he is one hell of a hockey player. In fact, his value to the team was expressed in the Boston series when he was promoted to the second line with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal in favor of Jarome Iginla, who was demoted to the third line.

No one should expect Cooke to become a regular second liner at age 34, but it’s not unreasonable to expect him to continue to be a great third-line pest, penalty kill specialist, and ball of energy for years to come.

It’s my hope that he does so with the Penguins. Matt, what’s your take on Cooke? Will the Penguins let him walk in hopes of ditching the “guilt by association” label, or will they stick behind him again? And maybe more importantly, will the decision to keep or cut ties with him have anything to do with his history as a dirty player?

Matt Godissart:
Matt, Shero has made it pretty apparent that the status quo is OK for now. But Cooke’s intangibles, as you mentioned, are going to keep Cooke around on this team for a bit of time.

Cooke only had 4 points in the playoffs this year. 1 of those 4 came during the Boston series, so Cooke actually contributed toward exactly half of the goals scored by the Pens during that series. Cooke’s presence was felt throughout that series, and appeared to have provided a bit of leadership in the locker room.

The only bit that could even be dislikable about Cooke was the hit in game one, which, while penalizable, was probably not a game misconduct-type penalty (and we could go on and on). If Cooke had responded the following game with a similar hit, Cooke is gone. Because Cooke has bounced back as a player who wants to play the game, instead of just goon around, he’ll be back for another two.

Josh, are Matt and I completely off-base here, or is Cooke sticking around?

Joshua Neal: To me, Cooke is the top priority UFA not named Malkin or Letang. Since Malkin has already been taken care of, and Letang will likely be a long and tedious negotiation process, Cooke even takes precedence over Dupuis, for me. He didn’t put up a ton of points this year like Dupuis did, but there’s just something about his game that makes him indispensable as a player for me.

There is a fear that surrounds Matt Cooke any time a defenseman has to go into the corners, whether from a legal or illegal hit. But I’d much rather that fear stayed put in another sweater. Cooke has the potential to develop some chemistry with Brandon Sutter and has shown he has world class talent on the penalty kill. If the Penguins lose Craig Adams to free agency/retirement, then Matt Cooke’s value even increases still.

In pitting Cooke against Dupuis, as far as priorities, we have to look at real numbers. Cooke is going to be cheaper than Dupuis, and does a lot of the same things – minus the incredible scoring prowess Dupuis has developed at even strength. But Matt Cooke seems to be everything Dan Bylsma wants in a hockey player, and for his value, I think he’s got to be one of the guys who stays in town.

Predictions:
Matt Paul: Cooke is retained for two years, keeping a $1.8 million cap hit
Matt Godissart: Cooke sticks around for two years, but drops to a $1.4 million cap hit, retires at the end of 2015 as a Penguin
Joshua Neal: Cooke signs a three-year deal in order to bring his AAV down around $1.5 million