Two minutes into the second period of a scoreless game between Minnesota and Colorado, Jan Hejda ran the puck back to Tyson Barrie just inside the Avalanche blueline. Matt Cooke was playing the left side in the Wild’s neutral zone forecheck, and seeing the pass, he rightfully jumped the play.
The pass was long enough that it might have given him time to put some body on Barrie, so he set out to fulfill his job and do just that.
His timing off, and with Barrie reading the forecheck, it happened: the Avs’ best offensive defenseman jumped right, and feeling he might miss Barrie and come up empty, Cooke extended his knee left.
The result: Four to six weeks from now Barrie should be able to skate again after his MCL heals, and long before that, Matt Cooke will meet with the Department of Player Safety.
Names like Matt Cooke are not popular around the league. Their reputation precedes them, as will happen when you leave a trail of bodies in your wake over the length of your career. He’s been suspended, vilified, and has deserved just about all of it.
But there’s a reason players like Cooke have had such long, prosperous careers: they’re really good at what they do, and what they do (outside of injuring people) has value, particularly in a salary cap league.
I never liked playing against this particular genre of player for all the obvious reasons. They’re physical, in your face, usually dirty, and they make scoring harder. They made me fear for my well-being, and they were usually not that interested in reasoning. They exist more to antagonize than fight, so they were actually a much bigger burden on players of my ilk than pure tough guys. I always knew I’d never have to fight the thugs, but there was no avoiding the whacks from these guys.
This type of player generally contributes 10-15 minutes per game, and does a lot of things good, but not great. They’re generally not inept with the puck, they’ll do the dirty work in front of the net and in the corners, and they’ll do those “little things” coaches ask.
Since the role doesn’t require the most talent in the game, the NHL has basically run a fine filter through the lower leagues and scooped up the guys who make coaches happy. They know they don’t have the elite talent that would allow them the freedom to freelance, so most guys at the top-level are pretty reliable. Part of being able to play that role also involves being able to skate so you can forecheck and finish checks.
By the time you’re talking NHL antagonizers, you’re usually talking about a good skater that’s positionally reliable and eager to hit. There are an endless amount of players in the minors who have the tools, but give their coaches too many headaches to climb the ranks (running out of position, taking a slew of minors, complaining about linemates, etc.). The ones who make it are the guys who don’t.
Matt Cooke and his brethren don’t just slash guys, knee them, smoke them in the head then put their suits on after the game. They’re contributing valuable minutes beyond what you see on highlight reels a couple times a year when you notice them for the first time since the last time they hurt someone. Call them cheap and idiotic — which they often are — but there’s a reason these guys stick in the bigs.
If you’re going to be cheap and idiotic and can’t play enough to make up for that — I see you Patrick Kaleta — you’re more expendable to your team. Matt Cooke has done a good job of making himself indispensable by accumulating nearly 400 points in just over 1000 games.
Cooke isn’t the only antagonist in the NHL, of course. We could just as easily be talking about Raffi Torres (comparable to Cooke in a number of ways), Steve Downie, Steve Ott, the ghost of Sean Avery, or a host of other players.
They’re far from talentless bums. Torres has 260 points in 635 games. Ott has 267 in 697 games. Avery had 247 in 580. Hated though they may be, these guys are pretty good players.
Value (dollars & cents)
This is where it starts to make the most sense:
Since Cooke’s first NHL deal in 2001, he’s earned $6,250 dollars less than Torres (crazy, hey?), who’s made $15,500,000 since 2003.
That’s not very much money for a couple guys who have proven they can contribute in the NHL for over a decade, and in a salary cap world, you need guys like this because you have to fill out a roster. Paying six forwards to be stars and six the league minimum isn’t going to get you anywhere (because most league minimum guys aren’t that special), so grabbing a couple mid-level payment guys who play their position and hit and skate well is a pretty appealing option. They’re offer quality depth at a fair price.
Whatever it takes
In the end, these jobs are somewhat replaceable, which is why you end up with “energy lines.” The Cookes and Torres’ of the league have long understood that they aren’t the best at anything in particular, so they have to do as much as they can for the perceived good of the team to stick around, and obviously, these two have stuck around. Dump it in? Stick up for a teammate? Not complain on the bench? You name it.
The moments where these “on the edge” players fall on the wrong side of clean are brutal, even moreso when it seems the same guys are “falling on the wrong side of clean” too often, and almost intentionally.
But again: when value and reliability come in the form of cheap players, it’s awfully tough for GMs to turn them down, especially when all you have to do to justify the signings is sell “reform” to the fans, whether the player intends to or not. And really, how much do GMs care if they do anyway?
No team is above grabbing a guy who “plays on the edge” because they contribute for cents on the dollar. If people get hurt in the process, what, it’s a quick game. Things happen. Matt’s sorry, again, guys.
Of course, it’s all nonsense. It’s crappy to justify the use of guys who can’t seem to control themselves well enough to not hurt others just because you can find a contributor on the cheap. But that’s pro sports. Teams have turned blind eyes to steroid use because it’s helped them, they’ve covered up scandals to not lose their stars, they’ve done whatever it’s taken to win forever.
If you believe your team is righteous and good and above making decisions like paying a cheap antagonist, I envy your lack of cynicism. They’re all over the league because they help their teams, so you’re not going to see them go anywhere any time soon.