Penguins forward Matt Cooke has scored 11 points this season.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Matt Cooke's bosses praise the way he kills penalties.
They point out that he is an effective forechecker, and that he can be plugged in to any number of spots up and down the lineup.
None of that is necessary to explain what management thinks of Cooke, however.
They showed that in a most obvious and tangible way in June -- with a contract.
And while Cooke's average salary of $1.8 million is a nice show of appreciation, it's the length of the deal that is most telling.
Cooke received a three-year contract, something general manager Ray Shero almost never gives to a role player. Shero has let more than a few reliable contributors go elsewhere because he declined to commit to them for more than two seasons.
Cooke, though, proved to be the exception to a previously unwavering rule.
Game: Ottawa Senators at Penguins, 1:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
Probable goaltenders:Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Brian Elliott for Senators.
Penguins: : Beat Senators, 5-2, here Oct. 18. ... C Sidney Crosby needs two goals for 200 in NHL. ... Are 6-5-2 in one-goal games, but 7-3 in those decided by two or more.
Senators: Have lost past three games on road, where they are 4-6-1. ... RW Chris Neil is tied for fourth in league with 68 penalty minutes. ... Are 2-5 in past seven games after going 6-1 in previous seven.
Of note: Ottawa is 8-1 when scoring first goal of game, 2-10-1 when allowing it.
"Going into the summer last year, [we were] wondering if, with Matt Cooke being a free agent, how we were going to replace him, who was going to be able to take his minutes, and his role," assistant coach Tony Granato said. "It's hard to find guys like that."
So far, Cooke has given Shero no reason to second-guess his decision.
He enters the Penguins' game against Ottawa at 1:08 p.m. today at Consol Energy Center with four goals and seven assists in 23 games. That means Cooke has a legitimate shot at surpassing his personal bests of 15 goals and 27 assists, although offensive stats do not provide the most accurate assessment of his work.
No, the essence of Cooke can be found in things like his 71 hits, the sixth-highest total in the NHL, and in his average of 3:08 of work on the Penguins' No. 3-ranked penalty-killing unit. Max Talbot, who averages 3:10, is the only Penguins forward who has spent more time playing short-handed.
"With [Jordan Staal] not being here yet, I'm getting a chance to be on the [penalty-kill] a little more, going twice on most penalties," Cooke said. "That's a bigger responsibility."
So is the one he has taken on for five-on-five play lately, when Cooke has been working on the No. 2 line, generally with Talbot and Evgeni Malkin.
That's not his natural niche -- Cooke is, in just about every way, a prototypical third-liner -- but he has embraced the challenge, which includes recognizing the needs of a gifted linemate like Malkin without being intimidated by him.
One key, Cooke said, is to not alter his game fundamentally simply because he is playing with Malkin.
"I have to play the same way," he said. "It's made me successful.
"There are times with the puck when I'm two-on-two, and he wants the puck, he wants to make a play, and I'll gladly give him the puck, whereas before I'd chip it in and try to get right to it.
"Being a little more offensive is something you always want to be. I just have to be careful I don't get carried away with it."
He does not feel increased pressure to put up offensive numbers when he's on the second line, Cooke said, either from himself or from Malkin.
"He understands and respects what I bring to the game," Cooke said. "If I go in and have a good forecheck, he knows that he's going to get the puck. He understands and appreciates it."
So do the coaches. Oh, they certainly wouldn't object if Cooke would show up on the scoresheet a little more often -- or, better yet, if he could find a way to have Malkin do that -- but they might be more aware of Cooke's strengths and limitations than anyone.
"What you expect of Matt Cooke is for him to be physical, to be hard to play against, to be a guy who sets a tone for your team on the forecheck, who's reliable on the [penalty-kill]," Granato said.
"And a guy who's versatile enough to be on the ice in different situations, when you know what you're going to get out of him."
And, maybe, in addition to everything they count on from Cooke, they'll get a career offensive season from him, too. Cooke acknowledged that he entered the season with some statistical objectives, even though they aren't a major source of motivation.
"I don't really focus on it a whole lot, but you have to set goals for yourself, and you have to set goals as a team," he said. "If you don't, you're cheating yourself out of an opportunity to push yourself."
That's something Cooke has shown he is able to do. And he has a thee-year contract to prove it.