The Departed" series on Empty Netters is a set of "eulogies" for former Penguins who have passed away... to other teams. Essentially, we look back on their time as a Penguin, examine their contributions to the franchise and, as real eulogies occasionally do, exaggerate a bit. Today's eulogy is dedicated to Matt Cooke.
The 2008 offseason was one full of changes for the Penguins. Coming off the franchise's first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 17 years, the Penguins saw several key pieces of that team depart via trades or free agency. The most infamous of those departures was Marian Hossa who joined the now-rival Red Wings after spurning an offer from the Penguins. Folk hero goaltender Ty Conklin joined him in Detroit as a free agent also. Enforcer George Larque left as a free agent as well. Power forwards Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts went to the Lightning in a trade.
Third-line antagnoist Jarkko Ruutu also departed as a free agent having signed with the Senators. As one of general manager Ray Shero's first signings in the 2006 offseason from the Canucks, Ruutu filled a valuable role for Shero's Penguins. In order to replace him, Shero went back to the well and found another third line antagonists with ties to the Canucks in Matt Cooke.
A third-round pick in the 1997 draft held at the Civic Arena, Cooke spent the first nine seasons of his NHL career in the Pacific Northwest, Cooke developed into a steady player who was capable of scoring double-digit figures in goals but also developed a reputation as a player not afraid to cause havoc with borderline hits. Early in the 2007-08 season, he injured Flames forward Daymond Langkow with a hit into the boards:
After finishing the 2007-08 season with the Capitals, Cooke joined the rival Penguins by signing a two-year contract. Almost immediately, Cooke was given Ruutu's old role on the third line with Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy. That trio would remain a fixture for the Penguins for the next four seasons.
Cooke didn't make much of an impact for the Penguins in terms of hitting or scoring early in first season with the team. His first multi-point game saw him record two assists - both primary helpers on goals by Staal - in a wild 7-6 comeback overtime win against the Red Wings, Nov. 11, 2008:
Eleven days later on Nov. 22, Cooke finally showed how much for a disturber he can be. All of 25 seconds into a 3-1 loss to his former team, the Canucks, Cooke dumped Vancouver defenseman Alexander Edler with a low hit. That touched off a near line brawl which saw Cooke and Canucks forward Jannik Hansen each get game misconducts for their roles in the skirmish:
In January, Cooke showed what he could do an occasional fill-in on the top line. With Sidney Crosby out of the lineup due to an ailing knee, Cooke was placed on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Petr Sykora and responded with two goals in a 3-1 home win against the Ducks, Jan. 16.
A few days later, Cooke was issued his first suspension with the Penguins when he struck Hurricanes forward Scott Walker in the head during a 2-1 home loss, Jan. 20:
Unlike the team as a whole, the rest of Cooke's first season with the Penguins was mostly nondescript. In 76 games, he scored 31 points (including 13 goals). In addition to his work with Kennedy and Staal in five-on-five play, Cooke also found a role on the team's penalty kill by locking 1:41 of short-handed ice time per game.
With the team stuck in 10th place of the Eastern Conference in February, head coach Michel Therrien was fired and replaced by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. That move as well as the return of defenseman Sergei Gonchar from a preseason shoulder injury and trades which brought in first-line wingers Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz catapulted the Penguins to a fourth place finish and a postseason berth.
Cooke's postseason accolades were limited to seven points in 24 games. Cooke's biggest offensive play may have come following a successful penalty kill. In a 3-1 home win against the Hurricanes in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, Cooke sprung Miroslav Satan on a breakaway for a goal which may have dictated the flow of the entire series which the Penguins swept:
The Penguins moved past the Hurricanes and returned to the Cup final for a re-match with the Red Wings. Cooke was held without a point in the series but played a large role in the Penguins' defensive and physical efforts. The Penguins' penalty kill limited the Red Wings power play to four goals on 23 chances. And the Penguins extracted a physical toll on the Red Wings who entered the series with several injuries. As a result, the Penguins were able to win the series in seven games and claim the franchise's third Stanley Cup title:
The early portion of Cooke's second season with the Penguins was similar to his first. A few goals and a few hits. I November, things started to turn a bit ugly. Cooke injured Senators forward Shean Donovan with an open-ice hit during a 6-2 road loss, Nov. 19:
The hit did not lead to any discipline. Two days later, he managed to get Thrashers star forward Ilya Kovalchuk to fight after a hit near the benches during a 3-2 road win, Nov. 21:
A week after that, Cooke was suspended two games for a hit to the head of Rangers forward Artem Anisimov during an 8-3 home win, Nov. 28:
After the suspension, Cooke's play leveled off as he stayed away from anything questionable and found ways to contribute on offense. In a 3-2 comeback road win against the Canadiens Dec. 10, he re-directed a shot by Canadiens goaltender Carey Price for a game-tying goal:
In late January, Cooke, no stranger to accusations, was accused of biting future teammate Arron Asham's hand during a 2-1 road win against the Flyers, Jan. 24:
Cooke did bite back at the Flyers by scoring the eventual game-winning goal off a re-direction while serving as a net-front presence during a power play while filling in for an injured Kunitz (5:27 mark):
A few days after the Olympic break, the most infamous moment of Cooke's career took place. During a 2-1 home win against the Bruins March 7, Bruins forward Marc Savard released a wrister from the high slot and was struck in the head by Cooke. Savard would be carted off the ice following the hit which was deemed legal by NHL officials:
It didn't take long for the Bruins to seek revenge on Cooke. Eleven days later, Cooke and the Penguins ventured to Boston. On his first shift, Cooke was chased down by Bruins forward Shawn Thornton. Cooke, who was often criticized for not fighting enough, engaged Thornton in a fight during a 3-0 road win March 18:
Cooke's up and down regular season ended on a major down as he dropped the gloves with Thrashers forward Evander Kane and was dropped with a big right hand during a 1-0 road loss April 1:
Appearing in 79 games that season, Cooke scored 30 points (including 15 goals) and recorded 106 penalty minutes. In the postseason, Cooke played in 13 games and produced six points. Cooke's finest moment was a two-goal effort in Game 6 which saw the Penguins come back from a 3-0 deficit to win 4-3 in overtime. Cooke scored two goals, including one which tied the game, 3-3, with 7:36 remaining in regulation:
In the following round, an Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Canadiens, Cooke severly injured Montreal all-star defenseman Andrei Markov's knee with a hit in the corner:
Despite Markov's absence, the Canadiens would upset the Penguins in seven games.
During the offseason, Cooke, having found a home on and off the ice in Pittsburgh, re-signed with the Penguins having agreed to a three-year contract. He would ensure a notorious piece of Penguins history when he recorded the first official penalty at brand new Consol Energy Center. During a season-opening 3-2 loss to the rival Flyers Oct. 7, Cooke was nabbed for holding 12:09 into the game.
That penalty seemed to set a tone for Cooke's 2010-11 campaign. Dealing with a family illness off the ice, Cooke season was highly tumultuous. While he maintained his production rate, Cooke just could not avoid trouble. On Superbowl Sunday in Washington, Cooke struck former teammate Alex Ovechkin with a low hit which hobbled the Capitals captain:
During the last stages a 3-0 home win against the Islanders, Feb. 2, Cooke made contact with Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro and touched off a brawl which ended with DiPietro being knocked out by Penguins goaltender Brent Johnson:
Six days later, during a 4-1 home loss to the Blue Jackets Feb. 8, Cooke hit Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin from behind on a play which earned Cooke a four-game suspension:
Cooke returned to the lineup and kept an even keel for the most part. On March 20, Cooke crossed the line for the final time that season. During a 5-2 home loss to the Rangers, Cooke clobbered New York defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the head:
The NHL dropped the hammer on Cooke by suspending him for the final 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the postseason. As it turned out, Cooke's season was finished as the Penguins were beaten by the Lightning in the quarterfinal round. The Penguins normally sturdy penalty kill struggled without Cooke during the series.
The suspension put Cooke's career at a crossroads. Penguins management issued an edict to him to correct his game. As he sought counseling outside the organization, Cooke worked extensively with the coaching staff. Viewing hours of video, Cooke identified the dangerous parts of the game in an effort to eliminate them.
The changes were immediately evident. In a season-opening 4-3 road shootout win against his former team, the Canucks, Cooke scored two goals, including one short-handed, while managing to avoid the penalty box.
As the 2011-12 season wore on, Cooke's offensive game continued to blossom. In a 3-1 home win against the Stars, Cooke showed off a pretty impressive set of puck-handling skill by scoring a penalty shot goal:
By New Year's Day, Cooke had just as many goals (seven) as penalties. During a comeback 5-4 home win against the Maple Leafs Jan. 31, Cooke scored the Penguins' first goal with a net-front re-direction:
Cooke's greatest display of skill that season may have come in a wild 6-4 road win against rival Flyers when he scored two goals. Pushing the puck by Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen, Cooke was able to shuffled a shorthanded goal by Philadelphia goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov while killing a two-man advantage in a five-on-three situation:
In mid-March, Cooke and Kennedy were centered by Crosby for a handful of games as Crosby worked his way back into the lineup after missing several months with a resurgence of concussions symptoms. Cooke benefitted by scoring 11 points in 15 games that month. On March 17, Cooke punched in a feed from Crosby for what turned out to be the game-winning goal in a 5-2 road win against the Devils:
Later that day, it was revealed Cooke was the Penguins' nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy as selected by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. The honor goes to the "player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey." Cooke, having nearly been out of the league a year prior, adjusted his game during the 2011-12 season and found a way to appear in all 82 games with a career-best 19 goals and 38 points. He always managed to drop his penalty minutes to 44, down from a team-leading 129 in 2011-12.
Reunited with Staal and Kennedy in the postseason, that trio turned out to be the team's most consistent line in terms of five-on-five play. Battling to get back in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the rival Flyers, Cooke collected a puck behind the Flyers' net during Game 5 and fed it to Kennedy who pounded home the eventual game-winning goal in a 3-2 victory:
Despite that trio's efforts, the Penguins would flame out against the Flyers and fall in six games.
During the 2012 offseason, Staal was traded to the Hurricanes. Part of the return was Brandon Sutter who was expected to become the new third-line center between Cooke and Kennedy. Following a lockout which delayed the season until January, Cooke and Sutter seemed to strike an immediate chemistry while Kennedy appeared to struggle without Staal. Sutter and Cooke did manage to hook up on a designed faceoff play in a 5-2 home victory against the rival Capitals Feb. 7:
Less than a week later, another chapter was added to Cooke's history of injury-inflicting hits. In a 4-2 home win against the Senators, while killing a penalty, Cooke pressed Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson into the corner boards. In the process, Cooke's left skate severed Karlsson's left Achilles tendon:
Karlsson would be sidelined several months due to the injury while Cooke reputation took another hit despite well-documented attempts to correct his game. Senators owner Eugene Melnyk went so far as to call Cooke a Central Hockey League player in the aftermath and even pledged to have forensic experts to examine the hit.
Cooke and Sutter continued to display comfort with one another. During a 4-2 comeback road win against the Islanders, Cooke was able to sneak a backhanded pass to Sutter who punched in the eventual game-winning goal:
While Cooke's goals were down and his penalty minutes were up slightly, he still found ways to contribute. Cooke would help ensure the Penguins a piece of NHL history by scoring the eventual game-winning goal in a 2-0 home win against the Islanders March 30:
The victory would be the Penguins' 15th consecutive, the second longest in NHL history trailing only the 17-game streak set by the 1992-93 Penguins.
In the postseason, Cooke was almost a non-factor in terms of offense. In 15 games, he recorded four assists. A hustling effort by Cooke led to a short-handed goal by Dupuis which all-but secured a 7-3 road win against the Senators in Game 4 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series.
In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, Cooke once again was stung by a penalty as he was ejected from a 3-0 home loss after hitting Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid from behind into the end boards:
The Penguins would get swept by the Bruins and entered an offseason with uncertainty.
With the team seeking ways to sign franchise players such as Malkin and Kris Letang to long-term contract extensions and the salary cap taking a drop as a result of the new collective bargaining agreement, Cooke was deemed expendable by Penguins management which did not re-sign him. Seeking a long-term deal, Cooke joined the Minnesota Wild as a free agent July 5.
Cooke appeared in 352 career games for the Penguins and scored 150 points 55th-most in franchise history. He also recorded 416 career points, 35th-most in franchise history. That total exceeds the penalty minute totals of noted hell-raisers such as Matthew Barnaby (399) and Marty McSorley (378).
In his five seasons with the Penguins, Cooke provided the Penguins with many things, much of which was not needed or wanted.
Mostly, he provided the Penguins what they needed when it was needed.
(Photos: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)