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Heel turn: Matt Cooke at the forefront of NHL culture shift to safety

TORONTO - An unlikely face is emerging at the forefront of what appears to be a changing culture among NHL players: Matt Cooke.

Widely known as the league's biggest cheap shot artist as recently as last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins forward has quietly reinvented himself and accumulated just four penalty minutes in 18 games this year.

Truth be told, Cooke had little choice. The veteran forward was suspended for the final 10 games of last season and entire first round of the playoffs after delivering a hit to the head of New York Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh. It was his fifth career suspension, all for illegal hits.

The NHL vowed to crack down even more on those infractions this season as part of a bid to improve player safety—new disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan heads a department which carries that name—but who would have imagined Cooke could ever be presented as Exhibit A in arguing its effectiveness?

Less than two months into the season, Penguins general manager Ray Shero is willing to do exactly that.

"For Brendan Shanahan and player safety, here's a guy that they can show on some highlights and the videos, where he's not taking the hit or he is pulling up (in dangerous situations)," said Shero. "He's still got a ways to go. But in the first portion of the season here and exhibition as well, he has changed the way he's played and he's still a really good, effective player for us in his role.

"That's good news for us and it's good news for Brendan Shanahan in terms of what he's trying to do."

Shanahan emerged from Tuesday's GMs meeting in Toronto feeling optimistic about the direction of the league. He's been a busy man—he handed out his 15th suspension of the season Wednesday to Blues forward Chris Stewart—but reported that concussions were down by more than half over last year.

More than anything, he attributed that improvement to the men who play the game.

"We know we're not going to get rid of all concussions," said Shanahan. "I take each and every one of them personally now, but the numbers and the strides that the players have made and the efforts that they've made so far have been really commendable."

Cooke went through a long period of self-reflection following the McDonagh suspension in March and promised to clean up his act. His transformation began far away from the rink.

"I feel like I retrained my brain to come back and play the right way had we made the second round (of the playoffs last season), but unfortunately we didn't," said Cooke. "That kickstarted me for this year."

Since the Penguins had actively lobbied for the removal of head hits in the sport, many called for them to cut ties with the serial offender. However, Shero felt some responsibility to Cooke after signing him as a free agent and watching him help Pittsburgh win the Stanley Cup in 2009.

The faith has been rewarded so far. Skating largely on the third line for the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins, Cooke has 10 points (5-5) and a plus-3 rating. He also logs a lot of time on the NHL's best penalty kill and sees some action on the power play.

"He's learned a different look at the game," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. "That's carried over into focusing on areas (where) you can still be physical and get hits and where you cannot. That's a change for Matt Cooke and I think that's evident in his play.

"I think every day for Matt is a test in that regard. I think people keep watching every day."

Shero likened Cooke's evolution to that of Chicago Blackhawks forward Stan Mikita decades ago. Mikita was among the roughest players in the league before setting about to change his image upon learning that his young daughter didn't like his style of play.

He went from 154 penalty minutes in 1965-66 to 58 in 1966-67 to 12 in 1967-68 and 14 in 1968-69. He was awarded the Lady Byng Trophy as the league's most gentlemanly player the latter two years.

Cooke could be trending in a similar direction.

"I think it's been a good story so far in how you can come back," said Shero. "Guys can change the way they play the game and hit. You go way back to Stan Mikita, he led the league in penalty minutes one year and the next year he won the Lady Byng.

"I'm not sure if Cookie's winning the Lady Byng, but he's worked at (changing his game) and he's thought about it. I give him a lot of credit for that."

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ROOKIE WATCH: With the world junior selection camp set to get underway in less than a month, there is growing optimism the Canadian team might get some help from the NHL.

Hockey Canada has started inquiring about the availability of the eight eligible players still in the NHL. While Carolina's Jeff Skinner and Boston's Tyler Seguin are obviously staying right where they are, Florida's Erik Gudbranson, Anaheim's Devante Smith-Pelly and possibly even Tampa's Brett Connolly could be loaned for the event.

The only NHL player to be made available to Hockey Canada in the last six years was Alex Pietrangelo in 2010. The event involves nearly a month-long commitment since all players must attend the Dec. 10-14 selection camp prior to the Dec. 26-Jan. 5 tournament in Edmonton and Calgary.

The other eligible Canadian players still with NHL teams are Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton), Ryan Johansen (Columbus) and Sean Couturier (Philadelphia).

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STAT PACK: Even though some dismiss the NHL's "real-time stats" as being unreliable—they're compiled during live games and the standard can vary from building to building—there were a few unexpected players among the league leaders. Entering Wednesday's games, Islanders winger Matt Martin had thrown the most bodychecks (69), Oilers defenceman Ladislav Smid had blocked the most shots (56) and Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson had committed the most turnovers (20).

Less surprising was seeing Rangers winger Marian Gaborik on top of the shots category (74) and Red Wings centre Pavel Datsyuk leading in takeaways (27).

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—With files from Alan Robinson in Pittsburgh

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