Monday, March 21, 2011

Around the Rinks: Matt Cooke Gets What He Deserves

Like an ice cold pop on a scorching summer day, isn't it refreshing to see the NHL actually do something significant when it comes to a guy like Matt Cooke?

On Monday afternoon, the league suspended the Pittsburgh Penguins forward for the rest of the season (10 games) and the first round of the playoffs for a filthy hit on New York Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh this weekend. The hit and the ensuing major penalty, which came with about 15 minutes to go in a 1-1 game, cost his team the two points and now costs them some depth at a crucial point in the season.

It boggles my mind that a guy like Cooke, as easy as he's had it so far in his career, would tempt fate by making a hit like that during a stretch where headshots, concussions and lax league discipline are such a hot topic! Then again, Dany Heatley and Brad Marchand both threw dirty elbows on the same day the league's general managers said they wanted tougher suspensions, so I guess he's not the only one!

Being a repeat offender didn't help Cooke's cause, as he was given a four-game ban last month for a hit from behind on Blue Jackets defenceman Fedor Tyutin. Of course, in most people's minds, Cooke was a repeat offender long before that - he is best known for his unpunished blindside hit to the head of Boston's Marc Savard, a blow that put him out of the lineup for a long time and helped dramatically change the direction of his career. It also earned Cooke the lead-off slot in the "illegal check to the head" section of the NHL's rule enforcement video from this year!

This story gets a lot more interesting when you bring Mario Lemieux into the fold: he was very critical of the NY Islanders organization after a big series of brawls between the Pens and the Isles earlier this season, which included a Trevor Gillies hit on Eric Tangradi that got him suspended for nine games. Last week he chimed in again, suggesting that the league issue fines to the teams that employ repeat offenders. To quote Alanis Morissette - isn't it ironic, don't you think?

Here are some of the best bits of a letter Lemieux wrote to the league last week (via ESPN):

"The current system punishes the offending player but does very little to deter such actions in the future...While there have been 50-plus suspensions since the start of the 2009-10 season, the suspensions themselves don't seem to be deterring these illegal acts and tactics...We think it is time that teams also are held accountable for the actions of their players."

Lemieux goes on to note that if the system was already in place, the Pens would have shelled out $600,000 this year alone - a number that would get a lot higher if you brought in Cooke's latest infraction. That hit on Ryan McDonagh would cost the team at least $750,000, or as much as $1-million if Pittsburgh's first round playoff series went past five games.

Oh, but wait - Cooke is a repeat offender!

Lemieux also said he wanted to see fines doubled if a player is suspended twice during the same season. That would mean a possible total fine of $2-million for that hit on Sunday and a grand total (so far) of $2.6-million on the season for the Penguins. In other terms, Matt Cooke would wind up costing them as much as $3.8-million for 2010/11, not to mention what it would cost them in additional salary (call-ups, etc) to fill his roster spot for what could be as many as 21 games.

Is that enough to make a coaching staff like Pittsburgh's think twice before plugging a guy like Cooke back into the lineup?

Are "team fines" the right direction to go to get the message across to players and owners alike that this type of on-ice behaviour is unacceptable? Most importantly, will the league stick with big suspensions for headshots, or will we be back to two games, a fine or nothing (but inclusion in next year's enforcement video) with the next big incident?

These are all very interesting questions that only time will tell the answer to, but I think the league made a solid gesture with this decision. At this point, it doesn't matter to me if public opinion played a role either, because at least it resulted in something significant for a guy known for doing this type of stuff (and getting away with it).

Here's a question for you though: What's worse - the Cooke hit, or Rick DiPietro's (old) new mask?

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