Considering the elbowing incident on Sunday combined with his past incident history, it doesn't come as much of a surprise that Pittsburgh Penguins winger Matt Cooke was suspended for the balance of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.
The Penguins have been front-and-center in the ongoing debate about concussions and dirty hits recently. Sidney Crosby has been out since the beginning of January with a concussion, following hits from (then-Washington forward) David Steckel and (Tampa defenseman) Victor Hedman. There was the fight-filled travesty in early February between the Islanders and Penguins that resulted in multiple suspensions and led to Mario Lemieux questioning the League's take on supplemental discipline. Now Cooke has been suspended again, with even his own General Manager not giving him a vote of confidence. One imagines the Penguins may look to part ways with Cooke this off-season. So is he a possibility the Devils should entertain if the opportunity arises?The first thing to look at is Matt Cooke, the player. A quick glance at his stats shows a player with some scoring touch (but not a ton) and a physical edge to his game. He's been a regular at the NHL level for a decade, and has produced 10-15 goals every full season in the League, be it in Vancouver, Washington, or Pittsburgh. A look at his numbers also shows he's been good for roughly 100 PIMs a season. While he has earned a reputation for dirty play and cheap shots this season, he also is known as something of an agitator.
The other thing to look at insofar as Matt Cooke is his salary. Per CapGeek, Cooke is in the first year of a 3-year/$5.4 million contract that is heavily front-loaded. While his cap hit is "only" $1.8 million per season, he is due to make $2 million in 2011-2012 and $1.25 million in 2012-2013. CapGeek gives Steve Downie as a comparable player and contract, and there are similarities there -- both are physical players, agitators, and both have some goal-scoring touch.
Another thing to consider is that Cooke might benefit from a fresh start and a change in scenery. Think about the case of Todd Bertuzzi, who was on one of the best lines in hockey back around the lockout (with Brendan Morrison and Marcus Naslund) before sucker punching Steve Moore and getting himself suspended. Bertuzzi would move on, first to Florida and then to Detroit.... and he has revived his career to a significant degree with the Red Wings. While Cooke is not the player Bertuzzi was, it doesn't have to be the end of the road for him in Pittsburgh.
The Devils do have a similar player in David Clarkson. Clarkie is a younger player and has a history with the Devils organization. Clarkson also does not have the suspension history of Matt Cooke that could lead to trouble down the road with Colin Campbell and the NHL's version of Supplemental Discipline. On the other hand, Clarkson also has a higher cap hit ($2.67 million for the next two years after this one) So that might lessen the need for a player like Cooke on the Devils, unless Lou Lamorello were to turn around and trade Clarkson to fill some other perceived need.
Looking deeper into the salary cap puzzle, the Pittsburgh Penguins are somewhat up against the cap for next season if it does not rise from its current level of $59.4 million, and they would need to add six players to their roster. This would lessen Pittsburgh's ability to take on salary as a "cost" of unloading Matt Cooke, which the Devils would likely wish to have happen in return for the favor (not to mention the Devils having their own potential cap issues). This would make any potential trade harder to facilitate.
Another potential headache would be Cooke himself and how he fits in with the Devils. Is there a strong enough veteran presence on the Devils' team to slap him down if he starts acting out? Can Cooke rein himself in, at least enough to stay on the effective side of the "agitating" line and not get himself flagged for dirty hits again? And what kind of player would Cooke be if he attempts to make that adjustment to his game?
So might Matt Cooke make sense for the Devils? It would be a complicated decision, to say the least. There's talent there, and at a reasonable cap hit in today's NHL. The Devils might be able to take advantage of an opportunity to "buy low", as the Penguins could not reasonably expect "full value" for a player they'd be keen to dump and who has two years left on his deal. At the same time, there's a risk in bringing such a player on board. Agitators like Cooke (or Sean Avery, to cite an example local fans might be more familiar with) can be a double-edged sword, capable of hurting their own teams as much as they antagonize foes. Also, a delicate mix of chemistry in the locker room could be completely overturned by one player (e.g., Sean Avery and his short-lived tenure in Dallas).
My opinion? I'd at least look at the possibility if it were to arise. I wouldn't be willing to pay "full price", but I'd certainly consider the prospect if the Devils could move a bulky contract such as Dainius Zubrus or Brian Rolston. With the Summer of Parise upcoming, a potential Top 10 pick to pay, and other holes to be filled on the roster, the potential savings against the cap can't be ignored. In the end, it would depend on the asking price.
So what do you think?