Pens Preview: Matt Cooke

As mentioned before, I am a tremendous fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and of hockey in general. I want to take some time to look at the major players for the Penguins as we get into the thick of the off-season in anticipation of the coming new year. I plan on taking a somewhat in-depth look at the player’s statistics and measure them against various benchmarks. Hopefully I can keep this interesting for everyone.

I wasn’t entirely sure which player to start with when I had originally thought of doing this. I had it narrowed down to a few players, but couldn’t easily decide who should be the first player. I even posed the question to a number of others and there was little agreement there, too. The only player to consistently get “well, that would be a good starting point” type responses is none other than the infamous Matt Cooke. Thus, I give you the Avoid the Clap breakdown and future of Matt Cooke.

Matt Cooke 2010-2011 general stat line:

67 GP, 12G, 18A, 30P, +14, 129PIM, 0PP, 3SH, 2GWG, 95S, 12.6S%

If the above statline looks odd or you have no idea what the numbers and letters me, I’ll break it down for you (and these can be applied to all players from here on out – use this post as a reference if you forget).

GP = games played, G = goals, A = assists, P = points, +/- = rating assigned to a player (+ indicated player was on ice when a goal was scored FOR his team, – indicated he was on ice for a goal against), PIM = penalty minutes (minor penalties assessed 2 minutes, majors, such as fighting, are assessed 5 minute penalties, and game misconducts are assessed 10 minutes), PP = power play goals, SH = Short-Handed goals, S = shots taken, S% = Shooting percentage (success rate of goal scoring vs number of shots taken).

Cooke had an interesting year, to say the least. Cooke effectively put up .45P per game. For a 3rd line player, I’ll take half a point per game production. Hell, guys like Crosby, a rare, generational talent, hover around 1P/per game, which is mind blowing.

Before I fully get into Cooke’s point production and offensive/defensive upside, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: suspensions.

Cooke has a history of playing the game with an edge. I, personally, like what Cooke brings to the rink each night. I like that he’ll knock players on their wallets. I like that he will agitate the oppositions stars and get under the skin of skill guys.  A good, competitive hockey club needs a guy or two like Cooke who can be a complete pest and then crush your soul with a beautiful goal or two. Cooke, however, goes across the line a little too often and puts the team at a gross disadvantage by taking unnecessary penalties and/or being suspended for his play and borderline-to-grossly-illegal hits.

We can think back to his hit on Marc Savard as the beginning of the end for Cooke ever being given the benefit of the doubt.

While the end result is ugly, the hit was legal at the time. I disagree with Cooke for making the hit, as nothing good can come from hitting a guy the way he did, but I also can’t argue or make a case he should have been suspended because he did not break any rules. This hit, however, has given the NHL the carte blanche to allow moral outrage to reign over player’s discipline (more on this later). The outrage over the hit went to plaid and everyone lost their damn minds. Scott Laughlin on the Power Play on NHL Network/XM Home Ice had such a magnificent blood lust over Cooke that even I was amazed, and I’ve often said I wished the world would end. Mike Johnson had to talk him down a few times. Laughlin tried to make the case that Cooke should be suspended even though the hit was within the rules and no penalty could be assessed because Savard was injured on the play. Johnson explained to him that it’s no different than some person being arrested while walking down the street even though the person committed no crime. The bloodlust subsided a little after that, but the undying, raging boner that people had for Cooke never died.

Sadly, this was not the last time Cooke’s name would be in the headlines. Here was Cooke’s final act of the season, as he was levied an incredibly heavy suspension for this hit on New York Ranger Ryan McDonagh:

Clearly, this was an illegal hit to the head. I have no problem with Cooke being disciplined for this hit. Moreover, I have a big problem with Cooke making a hit like that in the first place. There was no need or reason to bring the elbow up and deliver such a hit. If he keeps the elbow down and makes a clean hit it’s a great play by a two-way forward. Instead he picks the elbow up and puts his team at a disadvantage for 5 minutes, gets ejected from the game, and then is punished severely. When the game is tied 1-1 in the 3rd period, you DO NOT make a play like this, especially against a division opponent, even more so when the team has been depleted by injuries the way the Pens had been at this point in the season. This was a selfish and truly idiotic play on Cooke’s behalf.

All of that being said, I still believe, as the rest of the season proved, that Cooke’s subsequent suspension was a gross abuse of “making up for the Savard hit” and getting some revenge on Cooke. Cooke was suspended for the remainder of the regular season AND the first round of playoffs, which happened to go seven games. Going by the metric the NHL uses, 1 playoff game = 2 regular season games, so that was a 14 game suspension, plus the ten regular season games, giving a total of a 24-game suspension. For the sake of comparison, Matt Martin of the New York Islanders was only assessed a 4-game suspension for this attack on the Penguins’ Max Talbot (sucker punch and attack on a defenseless player from behind – the same type of play that had nearly killed Steve Moore when Todd Bertuzzi leveled a similar hit)

Likewise, Trevor Gillies, in the same game, was assessed a 9-game suspension for a hit as bad as Cooke’s on McDonagh. Gillies charged Eric Tangradi, leveled him in the head with an elbow, and then proceeded to punch him while he was clearly injured and doubled over. Gillies took him to the ice and then mocked him as he lay on the ice recovering from what ended up being a major concussion. Gillies is a professional goon with no redeeming qualities. Martin had been assessed a suspension for a hit on Phoenix’s Vernon Fiddler earlier in the season.  The repeat offender rule comes into play and both were slapped on the wrist for actions that would be considered felonious assault outside of the hockey rink. Matt Cooke was suspended for the equivalent of 24 games because of being a “repeat offender” (and there’s no denying he is a repeat offender, though the legitimacy of some of the suspensions is debatable), but guys like Martin and Gillies, in premeditated intent to injure, were slapped on the wrist.

Ugh.  Just ugh all around.

The bullseye is on Cooke’s back, deserved or not. There is no benefit of the doubt for a guy like him. He has pledged, at the strong urging of Penguins’ General Manager Ray Shero, to change the way he plays. Cooke has pledged to play smarter and not cross that line. I hope he is being truthful. When he plays with an edge, but within the rules, he is an excellent player and his stats bear that out.

In 67 games this season, Cooke was able to net 12 goals and assist on 18 others, giving 30 points on the year. When one looks deeper into the stats, it is even more impressive. He doesn’t have one or two games that skew those numbers. He was a consistent and constant presence on the ice, both offensively and defensively.

In the 67 games played, Cooke had ZERO multi-goal games, which means he scored in 12 separate games, and only had 5 multi-point games (only 2 games were a goal and assist, all other multi-point games were 2 assists), with none being greater than 2 points. In 67 games, Cooke appeared on the score sheet in 27 of them. Fantastic presence and production from a 3rd line player. Also within the stats, of his 12 goals, 3 of them came short-handed (or when the team was killing a penalty and playing with 1 fewer players). 1/4 of his goal output came on the PK. 3 of his assists also came on the PK, indicating that he helped set up 3 other goals by players while a man short. 6 of his total 30 points came while being a man down. Truly an astounding statline.

Cooke’s goals came against the following opponents (team abbreviations used for sake of my sanity; categorized by month):

October: PHI, TBL

November: DAL, NYR

December: BUF, PHX, FLA, ATL (now WPG)

January: DET

February: BUF, CHI

March: OTT.

Using the same system, his offensive output came against the following:

October: MTL, TOR, PHI, TBL

November: DAL, BOS, ATL (WPG), NYR, VAN

December: TOR, BUF, PHX, FLA, OTT, ATL (WPG)

January: TBL, BOS, DET

February: BUF, CHI, SJS, CHI

March: BOS, EDM, OTT

When he plays smart, Cooke has a lot more skill than people give him credit.

Other than Buffalo, there doesn’t appear to be a team that Cooke clearly played well against. He matched up well against a variety of teams and chipped in with timely offense. Likewise, games in which he appeared on the score sheet, the Pens record was 16-9. Timely scoring is a key to victory, and that is something that Cooke clearly provides the team.

Defensively, too, Cooke has been a stalwart. A prime example of what it means to be a two-way player, Cooke once again finished his season with a net positive +/- rating. He finished with a +14 rating, indicating that he was on the ice for 14 more goals for the Pens than against. I will admit, sometimes +/- can be a misleading stat, but it’s hard to deny that a +14 is impressive as a third line player whose responsibility is to give the main offense a rest, bang bodies, and score a timely goal or two to break the opponent’s will.

What will next season have in store for Matt Cooke? Well, it’s hard to say. He is a fantastically consistent player. The majority of his professional years have hovered around 30-35 points, which a few aberrations here and there. Had he stayed out of trouble he was potentially headed for a career year in production. He has also typically been in the 10-15% range on shot percentage, indicating he is not wasting his opportunities to score goals. He has 301 career points, but also 988 career penalty minutes. I can promise you he will eclipse the 1000 mark on penalty minutes, but I would say it is near impossible for him to eclipse the 350 point mark.

Based on previous seasons and what I can expect the Pens’ line-up to look like heading into next year, my projection (and this is based on trends and speculation, nothing scientific) for Cooke:

73 games played, 18 goals, 23 assists, 41P, 88 penalty minutes, 1 SHG, 0PPG, 2 GWG, 108S, 16.7%

If Cooke truly is a reformed man, and I hope he is, I think you will see a big upswing in offensive output. If Cooke goes back to playing the way he did this past year, you can expect him to be suspended a lot and/or scratched nightly. This year has the potential to be huge for Cooke. He can either right the ship and play with the skill we know he has, or he can continue down the road of making stupid plays and put the team in danger. It will be interesting to see which path he chooses. I, personally, think he will play with skill and curb his over-the-line play substantially.

Let’s go Pens.

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