By Tim Benz
We can debate the length of Matt Cooke’s suspension. Is it appropriate or too long? We can argue over whether or not the Penguins should keep Cooke after the season. And we can talk about the likelihood of the NHL living up to this new lofty standard of discipline for headshots, or slacking off with the next punishment it doles out.
All these points have been hotly contested around water coolers in Pittsburgh for a few days now.
Here’s another question to ask: Will the Penguins miss Matt Cooke? Well, if the four periods of hockey Pittsburgh has played without him so far is any indication…then the answer is a resounding: “HELL YES THEY WILL!”
Go ahead and call Matt Cooke a dirty player, but also call him a good one. He’s a very good third line winger. He’s good defensively. He hits hard (sometimes even legally). He can skate a little. He’s bigger and stronger than you may think. He’s won a cup. And he’ll get you 15 goals and thirty points a season.
Most importantly Cooke is a great penalty killer. Ask any Penguin in the locker room. Heck, ask their last two opponents. In the first four periods of Matt Cooke’s absence (since he was ejected in the third period of Sunday’s game vs. the New York Rangers) the Penguins’ highly ranked penalty kill has yielded four goals.
That can’t be a coincidence.
“He’s a hole on our team that’s going to be tough to fill. He reads plays well. He does a great job getting in lanes,” says fellow penalty killer Jordan Staal. “I’ve PK’d with him for a long time. He knows the system. And he does it well.”
There are still lots of good penalty killing forwards on the team. Staal, Craig Adams, Max Talbot, and Pascal Dupuis can all do the job. And they have to the tune of a top ranked PK unit for much of the season (it‘s currently tied for 2nd in the NHL with Washington and Los Angeles and behind Vancouver).
Now with Cooke out, Chris Kunitz has taken on some of Cooke’s duties on “The Kill” unit, as well as filling his spot at even strength wth Staal and Tyler Kennedy.
But an expanded penalty killing role is going to be something fairly new for the winger.
“Over the past year and a half, I’ve filled in on the PK when somebody else has been hurt or in the penalty box,” said Kunitz during an appearance on 105.9 the X’s morning show Wednesday. “I’ve always filled in and killed the last 15 seconds or so of a two minute power play.”
Kunitz rewarded the club with a short handed goal Sunday. But that was just his second as a Penguin. From the way coach Dan Bylsma spoke at Southpointe Wednesday, it sounds as if Dustin Jeffery may be the player who gets the biggest chance to shine on the penalty kill while Cooke is sidelined.
“Dustin Jeffery is a guy who was an outstanding penalty killer down in Wilkes Barre. He’s going to get a chance to get a larger role now here. And if he can win draws, he may sneak into the top four for us,” said Bylsma.
The last word you may want to use to describe Matt Cooke is “consistent”. Emotionally he’s inconsistent. In terms of availability, he is inconsistent due to suspensions. And in terms of temperament he is inconsistent.
But the PK has to be consistently good if you are going to have a good hockey team. And Cooke is highly consistent in that regard. Whoever steps in for him better be as well.