Penguins winger Matt Cooke is escorted from the ice by NHL linesman Derek Amell after Mr. Cooke was ejected for elbowing New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the head in the third period Mar. 20 at Consol Energy Center. The league subsequently hit Cooke with a lengthy suspension.
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Penguins want gritty left winger Matt Cooke back next season, but they want the man and the hockey player he professed to be Friday, not the one who last month put the team in an awkward and disadvantageous situation.
Cooke remains under contract with the club through 2012-13, but there was some question about possibly trading him after he got a 17-game suspension from the NHL as a repeat offender for a blatant elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh on March 20.
"There is every indication he'll be back with us," general manager Ray Shero said. "I think with Matt, he's taken steps since the suspension to improve himself as a person and as a player, to be a more effective player for us next year in terms of decisions that he makes on the ice."
Just days after Shero took a public but minority stand among league GMs that the NHL should ban all hits to the head, Cooke was barred from playing the final 10 games of the season plus the first round of the playoffs, against Tampa Bay.
As the players were gathering their things Friday at Consol Energy Center and saying goodbye for the summer, Cooke said he felt at least partly responsible for the loss in seven games to the Lightning.
"Absolutely," he said. "Maybe even if I was playing it wouldn't have made a difference, but I would way rather be out there helping and going to battle with my teammates."
When the suspension took effect, Cooke was granted a leave for about a week. He apparently underwent counseling externally and later in sessions with coach Dan Bylsma.
"[I] worked on some things I needed some help with," Cooke said. "I've had a chance to work with some great people outside of hockey, and I will continue to do so. I've spent hours upon hours with Dan analyzing the game and trying to re-teach when and where to hit."
Cooke has been suspended three times since signing with the Penguins before the 2008-09 season. He was not disciplined by the NHL for his most famous hit, to the head of Boston's Marc Savard in March 2010, but the league crafted Rule 48 outlawing certain head hits after Savard's severe concussion.
"I've changed my game since the Savard hit," Cooke said. "I've tried to make some changes. In the New York game alone, I had a chance to hit [Bryan] McCabe, [but] he turned and I didn't hit him. I had a chance to hit Dan Boyle and didn't hit him. Unfortunately, I made a mistake on the McDonagh hit."
Cooke, who had 12 goals, 30 points and was second on the team with 192 hits despite playing just 67 games, promised to play smarter, but not softer.
"I'm not going to put a tutu on and dance around out there, but there are a lot of situations that can go bad in a hurry. Those are the areas and times that more caution has to be taken. I'm fully prepared and I've already gone to pretty good lengths to change. I will continue to do so and prove that it's possible."
Cooke avoided the fairly obvious incongruity with NHL suspensions. When he received his supplemental discipline, it was thought that might start a trend of heavier crackdowns on illegal hits to the head. But several such hits have taken place since, and no player has drawn a suspension of more than four games -- and some have not been suspended.
"The league made a decision that they felt they had to do. I accept that," he said. "I don't really have an opinion on any of the other hits because the league is doing their job."
Shero and Bylsma supported Cooke's suspension, and Shero hopes the NHL will take steps during the offseason to further address hits to the head.
Shero noted that "there's now a standard out there for a 17-game suspension," and wonders whether discipline will be tougher starting next season.
"We'll see moving forward," Shero said. "I hope so."