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Why did Matt Cooke only get suspended seven games?

The NHL did a smart thing on Wednesday night.

It wasn’t the Matt Cooke suspension, at least in the eyes of those who feel he got off lightly, but it was the timing of that suspension announcement: Well after the East Coast news cycle, well into that night’s action in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Instead of having hockey fans pouring rage all over social media during the day about Cooke’s punishment, the news dropped within hours of two overtime thrillers and a stunning upset in Dallas. Matt Cooke’s suspension was now, at best, the fourth headline of the evening.

That’s not to say fans and media weren’t outraged over the Minnesota Wild forward getting off with an “inadequate” and a “joke” of a suspension. But after predictions ranging from two rounds to the rest of the playoffs, seven games felt … anti-climatic.

The question then becomes why Cooke, who had been suspended six times in his career, didn’t face the same harsh punishment as, say, Raffi Torres did for putting Marian Hossa on a stretcher.

So how did the NHL arrive at seven games?

The Incident

Here’s the Player Safety video on the hit:

The comparable play for the NHL was Kevin Porter’s knee-on-keen with David Booth in 2011, which earned him four games:

Now, Porter might have actually made more of an effort to deliver a check than Cooke did, but the plays are similar: Leading with the knee. In Cooke’s case, there was a sense that Tyson Barrie tried to avoid the hit, which no doubt contributed to the injury – but what else was he supposed to do?

The Penalty

Simply put, the NHL sees the severity of the crime differently when it comes to kneeing vs. hits to the head or dangerous plays on the board.

As has been pointed out, Cooke’s seven games is the second-longest ban in League history for kneeing after Bryan Marchment’s eight games in 1998 for a hit on Kevin Dineen. The biggest suspension for kneeing given out by the Department of Player Safety since its founding was five games for James Neal on Brad Marchand, but that was a knee to the head.

So this was a massive suspension, given the previous rulings on the infraction.

The Philosophy

The Department of Player Safety’s philosophy under Brendan Shanahan was that the incremental increases for suspensions were for specific repeated behavior. Torres, for example, couldn’t stop hitting people in the head, so when the Marian Hossa hit happened it was, like, ‘Strike 10.’

Cooke had a similar body of work: Elbows and boarding penalties and head shots, illegal and whatever the hell the NHL determined the Marc Savard hit to be. But not kneeing, which meant that the escalating suspensions for his illegal hits didn’t necessarily extend to this incident.

Maybe you agree with that approach, maybe you think criminality is criminality, but that’s the way the NHL sees it.

Also keep in mind that despite having a few hits that involved the knee recently, Cooke had not been formally warned by the NHL not to deliver them. Please recall Alex Edler of the Vancouver Canucks had been warned about “reverse hits” before he kabonged Tomas Hertl. If Cooke had been warned, it was through informal communication with the League and Shanahan.

The Aesthetics

You have to boil down the NHL’s approach to massive suspensions to this, but there’s getting around it: Stretcher equals severity.

Torres put Hossa on a stretcher. Shawn Thornton put Brooks Oprik on a stretcher. Max Lapierre put Dan Boyle on a stretcher. And so on.

If Tyson Barrie had to be carted off the ice because he was unable to walk, I’d wager we’d see a larger suspension for Cooke. It’s just the way things roll in the NHL. But he hobbled off the ice.

***

Was seven games enough for Cooke?

We figured it was going to be in the range of 11 games, which would have been the rest of this round and the next. Seven games comes in under that, but still puts him out for this round and three playoff games in the following round if the Wild advance.

As we said, the last three years earned Cooke the benefit of the doubt on his being a “reformed” player. Seven games for Cooke, despite his past, would seem to indicate the NHL believes the same -- or at least believes that a knee is different than the head.

UPDATE: Here's Cooke's statement today, via Michael Russo:

“First and foremost, I want to say that I’m disappointed and sorry that Tyson Barrie can’t play for the Colorado Avalanche tonight. I wish that he could. Unfortunately, it was not my intent to collide with him knee-on-knee. It was my intent to finish my check. Playoffs are a hard and physical time and it’s my job to be physical. I’ve led my team in hits in all three games and it’s an intense time. I’ve led my team this year in hits and in this series. 

“Since March 20, 2011 (the elbow to Ryan McDonagh that resulted in a 17-game suspension), I’ve been a changed player. I’ve approached the game differently, I think differently about the game. That stats that I’ve collected over those three seasons prove that I’m a changed player and the plays that I make and the plays that I don’t make prove to that point as well. At the end of the day, this situation was not my intent.”

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