Modified approach pays off for Cooke

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SUNRISE, Fla. -- Penguins general manager Ray Shero had a pretty good idea of what he could expect from Matt Cooke when he decided to pursue him as a free agent in the summer of 2008.

He knew that Cooke could forecheck like a wolverine with anger-management issues. That he was responsible in both ends of the rink. That he could deliver hits that occasionally register on seismographs on the far side of the planet.

And that Cooke spent a lot of time playing right on the line that separates rugged hockey from dirty hockey. And that he occasionally crossed it.

Shero concluded that Cooke could provide an element the Penguins needed and backed that up by offering him a two-year contract that paid $1.2 million per season.

And he liked what Cooke did in those seasons enough to re-sign him to a three-year agreement with an annual salary-cap hit of $1.8 million in 2010.

"Looking back five years, certainly, I think it was a good signing for us," Shero said. "We won a Stanley Cup with him.

"For the last few years, he's been one of the top penalty-killers for us and can slide up and down the lineup, when necessary. He's playing well in all three zones. He gives us energy, has good speed."

Cooke enters the game against Florida tonight at the BB&T Center with six goals and 10 assists in 41 games. He ranks fourth on the team in hits with 86 and has 33 blocked shots, most of any Penguins forward.

And -- the occasional accusation out of Ottawa aside -- he continues to avoid the kind of controversy that was a staple of his career for so much of his time in the NHL.

He was, and perhaps always will be, most widely known for crushing hits, often delivered to unsuspecting opponents like Boston center Marc Savard and New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh.

The blow that dropped McDonagh earned Cooke a suspension that covered the final 10 games of the 2010-11 regular season and the Penguins' first-round playoff series against Tampa Bay.

It also, as has been well-documented, proved to be a pivotal moment in his career because Cooke returned the following season committed to purging cheap shots from his repertoire.

His efforts clearly have paid off to this point. In 123 games in 2011-12 and 2013, he has been assessed 74 minutes worth of penalties, all but 10 of them in the form of minors. He has received one misconduct and no majors in that span.

"You've seen him evolve as a player," Shero said. "He had to change the way he played and was perceived as a player. I think he's done that over the last couple of years."

That Cooke has been, and continues to be, a valuable role player for the Penguins is beyond dispute.

Though his game is best-suited to third-line duty, he can handle top-six work when circumstances demand it. And even though he is a left winger by trade, he can play the right side if needed. He did that recently and shrugged off the switch.

"It's not very much of an adjustment," Cooke said. "I'm comfortable over there. It doesn't matter much, either way"

Putting a price on that kind of versatility isn't easy, but Shero is going to have to try this summer.

Cooke is one of seven players on the major league roster scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in July, and three others will be restricted.

The cap ceiling for 2013-14 is set at $64.3 million, and the Penguins are believed to have a little less than $55.8 million tied up already.

It seems unlikely there will be enough cap space to bring all, or even most, of their free agents back, unless some players with time remaining on their contracts are traded.

If Shero has a plan for who he wants to re-sign this summer, however, he's not divulging it.

"I'm not addressing anything about anybody," he said. "Any offseason plans will be left to the offseason."

That probably is OK with Cooke, who says he hasn't considered what might happen in the summer.

"Honestly, I haven't put a lot of thought into it," he said. "I haven't let it bother me at all. It's something that when it comes time to cross that bridge, we'll cross it.

"My No. 1 focus is to win another championship with this group.

"That's the most important thing right now. That's all that matters."

NOTE -- The Penguins were given Friday off. So were the Panthers, who are coming off a 7-2 loss Thursday night in Winnipeg.


• Matchup: Penguins at Florida Panthers, 7:38 p.m., BB&T Center.

• TV, Radio: Root, WXDX-FM (105.9).

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Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published April 13, 2013 4:00 AM


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