On the Penguins: Management not writing off Cooke

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It would have been the easy thing to do.

It certainly would have been the popular thing to do.

And perhaps it will even become apparent someday that it would have been the smart thing to do.

But severing their ties to Matt Cooke wouldn't have been nearly as intriguing as the Penguins' decision to keep him. To take all the risks -- and possibly reap the rewards -- that come with giving hockey's most hated man a chance to rehabilitate his image.

In the aftermath of Cooke's indefensible elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh a week ago, countless members of the press and public argued -- with words that were sometimes eloquent, more often profane -- that he had forfeited that kind of opportunity for redemption.

That was a perfectly reasonable position, given Cooke's track record. After all, he hasn't been labeled the dirtiest player in the game because his name was drawn in a random lottery.

That he works for an organization that has set itself up as the perhaps most outspoken proponent of eliminating head shots from the game simply added an improbable twist to the situation.

Considering the embarrassment Cooke's latest transgression has caused management, no one would have blamed ownership for informing Cooke that the final two seasons of his contract would be bought out at the earliest opportunity.

Or perhaps that he should spend his free time between now and his scheduled return in the second round of the playoffs, assuming the Penguins advance that far, searching for a rental property with a two-year lease in Wilkes-Barre.

Instead, the front office -- presumably at the direction of co-owner Mario Lemieux -- made it known that Cooke would not be written off as a lost cause. Not yet, anyway.

"I'd prefer to be part of the solution to rehabbing him as a player versus making a decision to toss him overboard to be somebody else's problem and say we did our part," general manager Ray Shero said.

Cooke, to his credit, seems genuinely contrite about what he did to McDonagh, and it was encouraging that he didn't even try to justify the hit, or anything about it, during his hearing with NHL discipline czar Colin Campbell.

Not that there was any viable explanation for, or defense of, it.

If Cooke ever had been in denial about just how dangerous, and occasionally despicable, some of his hits over the years have been -- and that surely appears to have been the case -- he doesn't seem to be now.

Still, whether he truly is committed to exorcising the cheap shot from his repertoire won't be known for sure until the day he announces his retirement; until then, the idea that he's just one shift away from driving an elbow into some unfortunate opponent's skull, or a forearm into his chin, never will fully be gone.

Perhaps Cooke wouldn't be given this opportunity to redeem himself if he were a fringe guy, a slug good for no more than a dozen forgettable shifts per game. If that were true, he likely would be working elsewhere by now. Maybe in a different profession.

Cooke, though, can play this game -- as well as most, and better than many.

On so many levels, he's an ideal support player. He works hard and hits harder. Kills penalties well and chips in with the odd goal. Competes on every square inch of the rink.

But every now and then, for reasons as mystifying as they are impossible to predict, he does something mind-numbingly stupid and nasty, and the sequence ends with an opposing player on the ice.

Usually, the damage is superficial, as it was with McDonagh. At least once, though, it's been devastating; Boston center Marc Savard hasn't been the same since Cooke laid him out with a blindside hit just over a year ago, and he might never be.

Perhaps there's something in Cooke's DNA that overrides his good judgment -- whatever his faults and failings, Matt Cooke is not a stupid man -- and if so, the only question about a possible relapse is when, not whether, it will take place.

If that happens, the Penguins' gamble that he could be changed will be over.

And Cooke will not be the only loser.

The Week Ahead

Today: Florida ... Panthers are just a few weeks from being reintroduced to their natural habitat: the golf course.

Tuesday: Philadelphia ... These teams don't play. They collide.

Thursday: at Tampa Bay ... This might be a preview of the Penguins' first-round playoff series. And perhaps a reminder of why it might be a good thing to have home-ice advantage in a best-of-seven with the Lightning.

Saturday: at Florida ... Any week that's bookended by games against an opponent competing for nothing more than its place in the draft lottery had better be a productive one.

Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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