Tuesdays With Stoosh: 3.22

 
Probably safe to assume that just about every mainstream hockey media outlet and blogger will be offering their opinions and thoughts (dudes) on The Cooke Suspension.  So why should I be any different, eh?  We’re all sociopaths anyway.  And least I can use swear words.
 
So let’s get this out of the way first – some thoughts on Matt Cooke, the suspension and the responses.
 
The suspension is a tough spot for Pens fans.  Every player has their detractors within their own fanbase (as Geno & Fleury say, “Yeah, no shit.”) and Cooke certainly had his. Cooke isn’t an irreplaceable part like Crosby or Malkin, but he’s not exactly a spare part, either.  His absence won’t cripple the team, but it doesn’t exactly help, either.
 
That said, Pens fans were damn near unanimous in support of Cooke’s suspension.  The tradeoff with a guy like Matt Cooke tends to be the stupid penalties, usually taken at the worst of times.  And the occasional headshots, which make us cringe.  
 
And this year, it’s seemed to happen far too often, especially with the spotlight trained on the hits to the head.  So in light of all circumstances – especially those surrounding the captain of the team – it was getting tougher to watch.  At some point, the promises to change weren’t coming to fruition.  At some point, the impact on the rest of the team through these struggles to win games was just too negative.  Support eroded, and it happened at every level after Sunday – fans, teammates, management and ownership. 
 
Contrary to what some of the comments at Puck Daddy and the *ahem* “writers” at Bleacher Report may lead you to believe, Pens fans never took any satisfaction in any of Cooke’s hits.  No one was honestly happy to see Savard knocked stupid.  When Cooke boarded Tyutin, no one was happy about it.  And that’s why so many were in support of this suspension.  At some point, it’s on Cooke and it has to change.
 
And he will.  Or he’ll really enjoy Edmonton.
 
Here’s what’s NOT going to happen.  Matt Cooke will not be cut.  Matt Cooke will not be bought out.  Not while the 2010-11 season is going on.  
 
That may all change this summer, but it won’t change until then.  
 
First of all, if the Pens buy out his deal, he’s a free agent.  And all the people that want Shero and Lemieux to cut bait with Cooke in the name of “credibility” will be really thrilled when he lines up opposite the Pens six separate times next year in a Rangers or Flyers sweater.  THAT’S precisely why they won’t buy him out.
 
That said, it very well may be that Matt Cooke has played his last game in a Penguins uniform.  That’s for Shero and the rest of management to decide, but that won’t be handled until this summer.  If the Pens decide the benefits of having Matt Cooke on the roster no longer outweigh the costs, he’ll be traded.
 
Cooke has two years remaining on his deal AND he has a modified no-trade clause, but that can be worked out.  As opposed to buying him out and letting him go where he wants, a trade allows them to exert at least some degree of control over where he goes.  So if this is how Shero decides to proceed, you can damn well bet that Shero doesn’t put one Eastern Conference team on his target list. 
 
And there would be takers.  Todd Bertuzzi got another chance.  Steve Downie got another chance.  Ben Eager got another chance.  If Steve Ott was dumped by Dallas tomorrow, he’d be on another roster within 24 hours.
 
As Mark Madden pointed out on his show on Monday, even Sean Avery got multiple chances in the NHL, and Avery managed to get himself traded out of three separate organizations because he’s a dick and most of his teammates couldn’t stand him.  And until the league officially issues a ban on headshots, there will be at least one general manager out there who will take a chance on someone like Cooke.
 
One of the most interesting subplots of this suspension is this – how is the league going to handle the next shot to the head?
 
The NHL has painted itself into a corner here, and that’s a good thing.  Bettman and Colin Campbell look uncomfortable in their own skin to begin with.  People have been clamoring for the league to establish a standard on these hits, and this suspension sets that bar pretty high.  But what happens next time?  Because there will still be a “next time”, and it’ll happen this year…perhaps as early as tonight’s games.
 
Matt Cooke is an easy person to make an example of because he earned his reputation.  Trevor Gillies would’ve been an easier example because he earned his reputation and he looks like Clu Haywood.
 
 
But what if the next shot to the head is delivered by Mike Richards?  Pierre’s little girl has never been suspended for a head shot, but he has a history with a hit that was every bit as severe as Cooke’s hit on Savard (interesting that the headshot discussion always seems to start with Cooke-Savard and never seems to circle back to Richards-Booth).  Richards is also adored by the national broadcasters for every perceived intangible under the sun, and there’s nothing that seems to go further in perception of hockey players among the media than the guy who does “all the little things”. 
 
So does Richards’s status as a top-line center and leadership personified absolve him of a lesser sentence if he flattens someone on the Caps tonight with an elbow to the head?
 
What if it’s Pronger?  Unlike Richards, Pronger HAS a history.  He’s been suspended on eight separate occasions.  He’s a guy who is considered by many to be one of the dirtiest players in the league.  Objectively, he’s a player whose history and reputation is at least as questionable as Cooke’s, if not more.  But like Richards, Pronger’s antics that would be considered dirty if conducted by 98% of the rest of the league are often dismissed almost admiringly by the broadcasters as rugged play or gamesmanship.
 
And what if it’s Ovechkin?  He’s the biggest name in the game outside of Crosby.  He’s got a history.  He’s been suspended for reckless hits.  What if he does to someone before the end of the year what he did to Brian Campbell, Jamie Heward or Patrick Kaleta?  Remember him being admonished by the refs in 24/7 during the Winter Classic for leaving his feet to hit someone on the boards?  What if he does it again, misses and staples someone’s head to the glass?  The NHL set a bar with this.  Will they suspend a repeat offender with prior suspensions for dirty hits along the same lines as Cooke?
 
Don’t hold your breath.
 
Want to see how easy it is to ignore the double-standards?
 

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There’s the face of your franchise and one of the most celebrated players in NHL history, Rangers fans.
 
Like I said, don’t hold your breath.
 
What was most irritating about this whole mess was the misplaced anger at Lemieux and Shero.  Somehow this notion cropped up that unless Lemieux and Shero went above what the NHL did to Cooke and implemented their own team-imposed discipline, they were hypocrites in this head shot debate.  Some called for an additional team-imposed suspension on top of what the NHL gave Cooke.  Some called for cutting Cooke from the team outright.
 
There may be an argument there, but is it really on Lemieux and Shero to go above & beyond when this is a league-wide issue?  
 
Here’s my point.  
 
Ray Shero & Mario Lemieux have both made very clear over the last few weeks their viewpoint on this headshot issue this season.  
 
 
During the GM’s meetings last week, Ray Shero was among the minority of general managers who supported a ban on all shots to the head.  He re-iterated that in his statement after Cooke’s suspension was handed down.  He acknowledged several times the team’s awareness that proposing any sort of all-out ban on hits to the head works against certain players on his own team, and has yet continued to move in support of this.
 
Lemieux sent a letter to Gary Bettman outlining in substantial detail a proposal that levies both suspensions to the player and fines to the player’s club for shots to the head.  To add further teeth to the proposal, he stated at the end of the letter that his own team would’ve been subjected to $600,000 worth of fines had it been in effect.
 
So it was at the general managers’ meetings, the NHL had a chance to make a more sweeping statement.  Even better, it had the general manager and owner of the team that employs one of the posterboys of this issue offer suggestions and proposals for such changes.  EVEN BETTER, it had said GM and owner publicly state their awareness of the impact that such changes could have to their roster and their organization in the form of suspensions and fines.
 
Wasn’t that enough?  Shero and Lemieux stepped forward with actual solutions, also acknowledging that said solutions force changes within current players on their roster that could decrease their overall effectiveness on the team.  
 
Isn’t this more credible than the GM who sat back and said nothing, satisfied with the status quo and knowing full well there were players within his own organization capable of doing the same things Cooke does?
 
As has become par for the course, the league as a whole failed miserably to take action on these proposals.  And yet most of the vitriol and all of the conditions of this artificially-noble cause have been heaped on…Lemieux?
 
And for what?  To appease the people – mostly media types – who slapped some sort of “higher noble cause” on this? 
 
OK…
 
So when do we then turn our attention towards Steve Yzerman for employing Steve Downie?  When does Joe Nieuwendyk get called on the carpet for making sure Steve Ott gets a shot at ice time every night?  Is Ted Leonsis now a hypocrite for continuing to employ a player who leaves his feet when he throws a check into the boards and has a history of hitting players from behind?
 
See how slippery that slope gets?
 
Or maybe we should just be happy with what happened.  Cooke is suspended, probably for the year.  The witch-king is dead.  Shero – no doubt speaking on Lemieux’s behalf as well – issued a very candid and very direct response in support of the suspension, again restating the team’s desire to eliminate these hits from the game.  Everyone can read between the lines.  
 
If Matt Cooke wants to remain a Penguin, he changes his game.  
 

 
It’s that simple.
 
The Pens have done all they need to do for right now.
 
If you're upset at anyone, be more upset at the general managers of those teams that saw fit to change nothing.
 
 Excellent read here from Zach Boslett over at Faceoff Factor on James Neal’s Penguins tenure thus far.  
 
 
And enough of the Ponikarovsky comparisons.  Since he arrived in Pittsburgh, Neal has been all over the ice and has been one of the Pens best forwards night in and night out in terms of creating scoring chances. 
 
After a solid first few games, Ponikarovsky reverted back to what he was – a player who seemed content to play like nothing was expected of him.  He seemed happy to carry the puck down the boards and drop it weakly into the middle when challenged.  He had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the front of the net.  He failed here because he played his way out of the lineup.  He was really that bad.
 
Neal has been producing chances and generating offense; he’s just not capitalizing.  That’s not a bust; that’s a player who’s snake-bitten and just isn’t getting the puck behind the goaltender.
 
As easy as it sometimes is on NHL ’11 to make one of these deals and see instant results, it doesn’t happen that way in real life.  Chemistry and timing with new teammates takes time to develop.  This may have been mentioned before, but when Hossa arrived in Pittsburgh, he played 12 regular season games and scored just 3 goals.  It wasn’t actually until the Rangers series in the second round that he clicked with Crosby and went off.  It takes time, and that’s with a player who was much more geared towards creating offense on his own, playing alongside an elite center.
 
Neal needs to start converting some of these chances.  That’s fair criticism of his game.  The Ponikarovsky comparisons are crazy, though.
 
Don’t force us to create one of those “Is James Neal Going to be OK?” pages.
 

Nikita Filatov, Sidney Crosby and…Pensblog Adam?
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