In the past year and a half, Matt Cooke has become more of a household name than he has throughout his entire career. However, for the 32-year old Toronto native, it’s for all of the wrong reasons. Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that Cooke just received another suspension for his flying elbow on New York Ranger Ryan McDonagh. This suspension, his 5th of his career and 2nd of this year, is the most severe he has faced yet, as he will miss the final 9 games of the regular season, as well as the first round of the playoffs. In what will be a total of 14-17 games missed and $250,000 in lost wages, what is the next step for the Penguins and did the NHL handle this right?
The Penguins are between a rock and a hard place with the Cooke situation. Last week at the general manager meetings in Florida, Penguins general manager Ray Shero is one of the few executives who seeks total elimination of head shots. Penguins owner Mario Lemieux has been very vocal (at least through letters) on his opinion of the NHL and how they are handling the head shots. Lemieux came up with a system that will actually fine the team for a player doing wrong and will increase for each violation. While the owners and general manager will reconvene at the end of the season to discuss this hot issue again, nothing became out of the meetings last week other than agreeing to outlaw hits to the head that intend to harm.
So with the Penguins being at the front of the head shot issue, how do they save face and keep respectability when they have the dirtiest player in the game on their team? Let me start by saying that as a huge Penguin and hockey fan, I am very happy with the suspension that Cooke got and think the NHL got it right. People will either say the punishment was too harsh for Cooke (the same ones will complain about the hits on Crosby though) or that they have had enough. I personally have defended Cooke up until Sunday. There is no way he can be defended after that barbaric display on the ice. There are some factors that are in play with what the Penguins are able to do with Cooke. The first major one that people seem to discuss, is if the Pens let go of him, he’ll be head hunting against the Penguins when he returns to play them. Which if the Penguins do look to get rid of Cooke, they need to make sure he goes to the western conference. Secondly, Cooke signed a three-year contract extension in the offseason, making a release of him a hard thing to do. Not only because of the skill set that Cooke brings as a penalty-killer and proven he can score when needed, but because of the collective bargaining agreement in the NHL. To my understanding, with the current setup, the Penguins would have to give Cooke 2/3 of his remaining money for 2/3 of his remaining contract, which is a lot of money to eat up.
It can’t be as simple to trade Cooke either because of his trade clause that he signed upon renewing his contract. Cooke had a lot of interest in the market, but took a hometown discount to stay in Pittsburgh. He can control his fate with an unknown list of teams that he can refuse a trade to. Even if Shero looked to trade Cooke, what kind of market is out there for him now? He could be an elbow away from being suspended a half of a season or even out of the league. Cooke released a statement where he apologized to his team, coach, management and the league saying that he knows now more than ever that he needs to change the way he plays the game. Can he be trusted though? Cooke has played hard throughout his career even with Washington and Vancouver, but he has crossed the line one too many times in Pittsburgh.
My solution to this if I were the Penguins would be to suspend Cooke the remainder of the season including if the Pens make it out of the first round. Making a statement like this now would look better for the Penguins than if they bow out early and don’t say anything. Obviously if the Pens make it that far, they have found a way to win without Cooke. With his own teammate and best player in hockey on the shelf with a concussion in Crosby, how can Cooke look him in the eyes? His teammates won’t publicly bash him, but I wish I was a fly on the wall in the dressing room to see what they feel about the position Cooke put them in. After the season, the Penguins need to explore trade options, but can’t give him up for nothing. If there is no trade market then the Penguins brass needs to sit Cooke down and tell him in black and white that this is it. He is on a one-strike and you’re out approach. One dirty hit and he’s out of here for good. Hopefully Cooke and the Penguins will be able to revitalize his career and he will make the changes he needs. His career is counting on it.
About the Author
Written by Michael Waterloo
I'm currently pursuing my Master's degree in Communication and Journalism from Clarion University. I currently work for Ohio Valley Athletics where I serve as the West Virginia Football Beat Writer and cover West Virginia Men's Basketball as well. I'm a big Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Penguins, Pitt Panthers and Oregon Ducks fan. Follow me on Twitter at @MichaelWaterloo or visit www.ovathletics.com