Under scrutiny, Matt Cooke returns

Matt Cooke returns from a seven-game suspension tonight in Minnesota. AP Photo/Jim Mone

Kris Letang said he has never faced Matt Cooke in an NHL game, which puts him among the fortunate few for NHL defensemen.

“Yeah,” he said, smiling. “Lucky me.”

But he doesn’t need experience to know that Cooke is a pain in the rear to play against. Cooke will return to the Minnesota Wild lineup for tonight’s Game 4 against the Chicago Blackhawks and gives Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and the rest of the Hawks' defensemen one more thing to think about when they’re going back to retrieve pucks.

“He’s a tough guy to play against for a D,” Letang said when we chatted this week. “He’s annoying. He plays annoying. It’s tough to play when you have this guy on your back all the time.”

The challenge for Cooke will be playing his annoying game in the face of renewed questions about his ability to control himself during a game. He was suspended seven games for ending the postseason of Colorado defenseman Tyson Barrie, an injury for the Avalanche that could have been the difference between advancing and golfing.

In talking with the media in Minnesota leading up to this game, Cooke said it’s not his job to change the opinions of those who don’t believe he has altered his game enough to justify a return to the lineup this quickly. It’s his job to play his game effectively.

Now comes the challenge. Playing on that edge in a critical game when he knows eyes will be watching him -- especially those in the NHL’s war room. His presence, as one of the few guys on this team with significant playoff experience, can be a difference for the Wild, but only if he brings that physical edge without crossing the line.

We’ll find out tonight whether the Barrie incident alters Cooke’s game or whether he can settle back into a style of play that’s acceptable to his team and also to the department of player safety.

“He’s a veteran. He knows how to play playoff games, especially. Like everybody knows, he’s right on the edge. The last few years, I think he’s been great. A changed man, a changed player,” Letang said. “When you get the first game, you’re a little hesitant. You’re careful about what you’re doing. You have to expect that from him, but I don’t think he’s going to change his game or else he’s not going to be effective.”

Now, on to the Friday mailbag. If you have a question for next week’s bag, send it in here.

In the wake of Thursday's firings in Toronto, do you see the Leafs hiring a high-profile assistant (i.e. Adam Oates or Kirk Muller) to take some of the pressure off of Randy Carlyle? Or do they go unknown?


London, Ontario

My expectation is that they’ll hire at least one recognizable name. For one, there’s a reason coaches such as Muller and Oates earned NHL head-coaching jobs, and that’s because they are very good at their jobs. They’re the most qualified candidates on the market, and if you can land one of these guys as an assistant, you have to do it.

The other advantage to making the assistant coaching changes in Toronto right now while bringing Carlyle back is that it helps you bring in a guy who can potentially replace Carlyle if things go south during the season. Yes, Carlyle got a contract extension, but this is still the Maple Leafs. They’re printing money. They can still fire a coach with term left on his contract if the team doesn’t perform. So, if you bring in an experienced assistant such as Oates or Muller, that gives you an experienced option in the bullpen.

What are some reasonable winger and defense additions you see from the Islanders this summer, assuming they lock up Jaroslav Halak?


Long Island

Locking up Halak has to be the priority, and I’m not assuming anything there because the Islanders have traded for negotiating rights in the past only to see the guy walk. If you’re Halak, what’s the rush to sign with the Islanders? You don’t know who the new owner is; the defense in front of you isn’t particularly sound. There might be playoff teams such as San Jose or Minnesota goalie shopping this summer.

I’d still need some convincing, if I'm Halak.

If they get that done, that’s a significant upgrade for Garth Snow and the Islanders. Halak alone would help change their fortunes pretty dramatically and put the Islanders back in the playoff mix.

You know what I would do on the wing? I’d circle back on Matt Moulson. He hasn’t exactly lit it up in the playoffs for the Wild, and now he’s injured, so his price tag will still be reasonable. The Kings were interested in Moulson, but it sure looks as if Marian Gaborik is a solution there, and the Wild are expected to be in on Thomas Vanek. It might take some fence mending, but he liked playing with the Islanders. He’s close with John Tavares. You know there’s chemistry there.

If you’re looking for reasonable defensemen, one player whose stock is rising (but maybe not to Matt Niskanen levels) is Anton Stralman. He’s still just 27, had a good year under Alain Vigneault and has the offensive instincts that would click with the Islanders' high-end forwards.


Can you talk a little about what a team such as Buffalo can do to rebuild, taking into account the failed rebuild of Edmonton. Short of getting a Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews, or Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin combo, how do you fix a team that has so many holes? What didn't Edmonton do that Buffalo can do?


New York

Kurt, you’ve identified part of the issue with tanking. There’s no guarantee you’ll get the first pick, and there’s no guarantee that the year you’re drafting is the year a franchise player will be available.

Edmonton was hurt by bad timing more than anything. The timing for Chicago and Pittsburgh was impeccable.

Another couple of mistakes Edmonton made: It drafted too many players who were similar. The picks were all consensus No. 1 picks, so it’s a little unfair to look back and say Edmonton made a mistake, but the Nail Yakupov pick is the one you can question, considering the availability of Ryan Murray and the need on defense for the Oilers. Columbus loves Murray. The Oilers had all those premium picks and weren’t able to add size at forward in the West, which is critical, and they didn’t add a franchise defenseman.

The other mistake the Oilers made was locking all those guys up to those long-term contracts so quickly. Not only does it speed up the timeline in which you have to win in a cap system but it removes that carrot for the player to keep him motivated to play for a big deal.

The Sabres have two things going for them. Tim Murray is a proven talent evaluator. Odds are in your favor that he’s going to get the picks right. And, if the Sabres are bad one more year, which they will be, the 2015 draft is a great one. If they get a top-two pick, they’re getting their Crosby or Toews.

What are the odds that Mike Babcock leaves Detroit after his contract is up next year? That would be terrible news if he did. Who would be a good replacement if this does happen?



Bryan, if I were a betting man, and I am, I’d bet against him coaching in Detroit beyond next season. For one, Babcock is well aware that teams need a new voice after a while. Even a coach as good as Babcock gets stale, and some of those veterans in that room have been listening to him for a long time.

He’d get his choice of jobs if he played out his contract, and with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk in their final couple of years of stardom, there could be better positions for him to cement his legacy in the game. He’s a McGill guy with an appreciation for the history of the game, and my guess is he’d love to be the guy to bring a Stanley Cup back to Montreal, although it doesn’t look as if Michel Therrien is going anywhere. I think Dan Bylsma has done enough to return to Pittsburgh, but what if that job somehow opened? The Crosby-Babcock combo has worked out pretty well for Team Canada.

It could simply come down to which jobs are available as to whether he’ll return to Detroit. But he’s in a really good spot right now with a ton of leverage. He’s a smart man.

As for a replacement, the Red Wings wouldn’t have to look far. Their AHL bench boss, Jeff Blashill, is ready to be an NHL coach. Detroit's current associate coach, Tom Renney, is also more than qualified. If the Sharks' Todd McLellan becomes available, though, he’s the front-runner.

Now that he's tied for the lead in goals, do you think that Jussi Jokinen is in the Conn Smythe conversation? He's scoring big goals and still playing well defensively.

Jason Horsman,

Dayton, Ohio

Jason, yes, absolutely. His emergence this postseason has been huge for the Penguins because it has allowed Bylsma to keep Crosby and Malkin together on that dominant top line -- although I’d expect a guy such as Malkin to keep up his current scoring pace longer than Jokinen. Jokinen has entered the conversation, but he’s not quite in my top three:

1. Anze Kopitar -- Great two-way player. Leads playoffs in points with 15.

2. P.K. Subban -- If the Canadiens beat the Bruins, it’ll be because of Subban and Carey Price, another guy who should be in the conversation.

3. Brent Seabrook -- Nine points in six games on a Blackhawks team that might be emerging as the Stanley Cup front-runner.

Not sure if you're ready to tackle offseason questions, but one idea I've been mulling over is how this offseason UFA market is going to behave -- namely teams needing to "overpay" to get what they want. Especially on defense, where there is always a premium. Take the Red Wings, for example. They don't like to "overpay" for talent, but that approach is not going to fly this offseason. A guy like Matt Niskanen is going to get PAID.


Nashville, Tennessee

JT, you know me -- never too early to talk about the offseason! You’re wise in that observation about the necessity to spend, and I think it’s sometimes lost on fans. Teams are going to overpay in free agency. They do every year. Especially when you start comparing the contracts with those signed in years past or by teams that kept their own players at a discount. The cap is going up; teams have money; and the market isn’t strong. There are going to be some overpayments for the top guys.

The best players are typically lined up long term, so the players who hit free agency aren’t top-tier guys. But they’ll get high-end money simply because of supply and demand. Niskanen will get paid like a top-two defenseman because he’s the best defenseman available, not because he is or isn’t a top-two guy.

As one GM put it, sometimes you have to spill a little milk on the way to the barn. Or something like that. I’m not a farmer. But his point was, if you want to get the player, you’ll have to spend more than you’re comfortable spending. The alternative is not getting anybody. The trick is finding a balance. You can’t have too many overpaid free agents on your team, but if it fills a need on a team, sometimes it’s a necessary step to take.

Great topic for an article about referees. Question, do they track non-calls (missed calls) as well? Getting a call you make correct is great, but it is only part of the total package.

Joshua Langmead


Thanks, Joshua. I don’t believe they’re tracking every single missed call. Stephen Walkom joked that it would take a staff of 20 at each game to track every little decision made on the ice over the course of the game. There are supervisors at each game, though, so if an egregious missed call is made, it’s most certainly noted. I’d love to see the NHL one day follow the NBA’s approach of building a huge database of correct and incorrect calls. Data collection can only help everyone get better.


Who do you think Ron Francis will hire as the next coach of the Carolina Hurricanes?


Morrisville, North Carolina

Barry Trotz will be on the list, but Trotz will have his choice of jobs. I could see a Paul Fenton-Trotz duo ending up in Washington. It’s still early in the process, and, when I spoke to Ron Francis earlier this week, he said the list was large. If I’m speculating, though, I’m going with Kevin Dineen. Dineen did a good job with the Panthers; I’m not pinning their lack of success this season on him at all. He also enhanced his reputation with Hockey Canada. I like that fit in Carolina.

Penguins offseason: I'm sure they're going to try to re-sign Matt Niskanen. Could it be at the expense of Brooks Orpik? Robert Bortuzzo could be a good replacement, and the spare cash could go to locking up Niskanen. Also, thoughts on Rob Scuderi's future? Buyout candidate? Especially if Derrick Pouliot or Brian Dumoulin or Philip Samuelsson is ready to make the team?



Niskanen has had two very good seasons in a row and has shown he can log top-four minutes and can QB a power play. I'm hoping Ray Shero can find the shekels to keep him, but I fear he might have priced himself out of Pittsburgh. With the contracts doled out to the likes of Jason Garrison and Matt Carle in years past, I could see him commanding in the neighborhood of five years at $5 million -- $5.5 million per year. What say you?



Spoke to Niskanen and his agent this week, and he definitely wants to stay in Pittsburgh. It’s a great fit for him, and the Penguins want to keep him. There were preliminary contract talks during the season that will resume after the season.

He’s going to get paid, though. The minimum for me would be a contract comparable to what Andrew MacDonald got with the Flyers -- six years at $30 million. MacDonald is a good player, but I’d rather have Niskanen because of his offensive upside, so that contract would be my baseline if I were running the negotiations, which I’m not.

I realize Penguins fans are frustrated with Scuderi, but I wouldn’t buy him out. He still has trade value. I don’t think it would take much to persuade Dean Lombardi to bring him back to Los Angeles if the Penguins want to move him. To me, Orpik is the odd man out if Niskanen stays, because of cap considerations and all the good young defensemen Chris mentioned who are coming along.