November 01, 2011
Matt Cooke's(notes) self-professed reform as a reckless, injurious player was met with healthy skepticism over the summer; despite the way the Pittsburgh Penguins winger bared his personal pain over his wife's illness in early 2011, and offered proclamations like this:
"I've got this chance, and I need to look at it as an opportunity to show everybody that I can change my approach, that I can play within the rules. The rest of my career can be proving that it's possible to change. It has to be about that. There's no excuse for it not to be about that."
Thirteen games aren't "the rest of his career," but they are a healthy sample size. In October, Matt Cooke wasn't suspended. He wasn't fined. He wasn't assessed a major penalty.
In October, Matt Cooke had four penalty minutes. Four.
Meanwhile, he had four goals. And four assists.
Welcome to the new Matt Cooke?
Stephen Catanese of SB Nation Pittsburgh noted that this was "the cleanest and most productive October of his career," researching back to 1998 in which Cooke had eight penalty minutes in six games with the Vancouver Canucks. Prior to this season, he's averaged 11 games in October for the Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins, and his averaged 12.8 penalty minutes annually.
Further perspective: The last time Cooke had this few PIMs in a month during the regular-season — truncated April aside — was Feb. 2009 when he also had four.
Hopefully Cooke takes to heart how good he can be without losing control. He can be very effective even if he tones the hitting down. He can still be a linchpin on the league's top penalty killing unit. And he can be even more prolific offensively if he spends most of the game out of the penalty box.
Historically Cooke's run into more penalty minutes as the season progressed, rather than at the start. But reform has to start somewhere, and the beginning of the season is a better place than anywhere else.
We're all so damn quick to demonize this guy when he steps out of line, so quick to apply disbelief that the last year's suspensions and injuries and family issues have actually led to some kind of rehabilitation for one of the NHL's most injurious players.
He hasn't earned the right for us not to approach this with some cynicism; not when he's the poster child for Rule 48, and not when Marc Savard(notes) can't play a round of golf without concussion symptoms.
But you have to hand it to Cooke: For 13 games and one month, he's walked the walk.