It seems as though every team in the NHL has at least one. The agitating forward that is a pest in every sense of the word. His job is less to put the puck in the back of the net and more to get under the skin of opposing players in an attempt to draw penalties. The Minnesota Wild is fortunate enough to have arguably the best one in the NHL.
Matt Cooke hasn’t always been the player that fans love to watch today. During his time with the Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals, and the beginning of his stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was widely considered the dirtiest player the league. He was nothing short of a goon who seemed to be getting suspended several times each year. Instead of focusing on ways to make his team better, his main focus during each shift was to go for the biggest hit possible. He was considered a head hunter and other players were warned to not put themselves in a vulnerable position with him on the ice because Cooke wasn’t afraid to take a run at somebody. His career was far from glamorous.
After one specific incident in which Cooke elbowed Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers and he was suspended for 10 games and the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the transformation began. With the NHL’s increased emphasis on punishing the repeat offenders, Cooke realized that his career would soon be over if he continued down the path he was on. He quickly made the choice to become a defensively responsible, tenacious agitator that fans see today. During his last two years with the Penguins, he was able to become the model for other third line players around the league.
Today, Cooke is arguably one of the Minnesota Wild’s most valuable players because of the little things that may not show up on the scoreboard. His ability to kill penalties and block shots has given him the opportunity to play valuable minutes for a team with injuries to more high profile players. He shows little flash but makes up for it with grit that is unmatched. He has mastered the skill of drawing penalties over the course of his career and he understands that it benefits a team that is struggling to score at the same pace as the more powerful teams in the league. Finally, Cooke’s ability to create turnovers in the offensive zone has even led to a bit of a scoring surge as he is on pace to set a career high in points. In the first year of his three year contract, he is already exceeding the expectations of those who may have questioned the signing this summer.
The final element of Cooke’s presence that cannot go unnoticed is the fact that he has won a Stanley Cup before with Pittsburgh in 2009. He may not have been the most integral part of the team at the time as he was overshadowed by talented forwards such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but his experience in the playoffs is priceless for a young team. He has the ability to lead by example and guide other players with advice since he has seen just about everything throughout his career. If the Wild expects to make a significant playoff run in the next several years, it’s certain that Matt Cooke will be an integral part, even if it goes unnoticed.