Has Matt Cooke really changed? Hell, yeah!

Matt Cooke

When Matt Cooke of the Minnesota Wild stuck his knee out and caught Tyson Barrie in Game 3 of the first-round series against the Colorado Avalanche, the first instinct was to label Cooke as a clown who had not changed one iota from his reckless past.

That’s understandable. When you have a rap sheet as long as Cooke’s, you’re never going to get the benefit of the doubt. The fact that the NHL actually surprised everyone by making a bold supplementary discipline decision to suspend Cooke for seven playoff game put the exclamation mark on it. I believe the headline we used here at thn.com went something like this: “Matt Cooke: Once a rat, always a rat”.

There’s little doubt Cooke got exactly what he deserved when he was handed the seven-game suspension. It’s generally accepted that one playoff game is the equivalent of two games in the regular season, so it was not an insignificant amount of time for him to sit out. The knee on Barrie was a reckless play and it caused the Avalanche to be without arguably its best defenseman and a player who has displayed a penchant for making huge plays in overtime.

Cooke has spent much of the intervening time trying to convince people that he actually has changed since missing the final 10 games of the 2010-11 season and the first round of the playoffs for an elbow to the head of Ryan McDonagh and the incident with Barrie was an isolated one.

As much as it may seem counterintuitive to my stance against recklessness and violence in the game, I believe him. Because prior to the Barrie hit, Cooke has been, relatively speaking, quiet as a church mouse. The only incident in which he was involved was when Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson had his Achilles tendon severed on a Cooke hit. Despite a “forensic investigation” by Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, there was no evidence there was any nefarious act or intention.

If you don’t believe that Cooke has actually changed, just look at the numbers. The fact of the matter is that over the past three seasons, Cooke has had more penalties for diving (one) and delay of game for shooting the puck over the glass (one) than he has had for charging (zero).

He has been most guilty over the past three seasons, in which he has played the maximum 212 regular season games, of tripping and interference (including those on the goaltender), penalties of which he has received nine minors. There have been eight minors for roughing and seven for slashing. Cooke has received five unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and four each for highsticking and hooking and two each for crosschecking and holding.

The most telling stat in those numbers is not only the complete dearth of charging penalties, but the fact he has received only three minor penalties for boarding over the past three seasons. And he has not received a major penalty for anything since 2011.

The reason Cooke was considered such a villain was the reckless way that he attacked vulnerable players. But there is ample evidence to suggest he simply does not do that anymore. Until the hit on Barrie, Cooke had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he was a changed man.

So when Cooke takes to the ice for Game 4 of the Wild’s second-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks Friday night, there is no reason for him to tiptoe his way around the rink. He can play a physical grinding game without going over the line. He has proved it the past three years.