In 71 games this season, Matt Cooke has tallied 31 points including a career best 16 goals despite averaging a little under 16 minutes per game. Those numbers rank him outside the top 150 forwards in the league, and way outside the group of top six wingers.
But for Matt Cooke, it is more than just the number of points.
Cooke has 30 penalty minutes this season. That's it. A stark contrast to the previous three seasons where he easily racked up 100+ minutes. Before this season, he was more than a pest, he was a dangerous player; one that did not respect an opponent's well being, not only as an athlete but as a person.
Over the last four seasons, alone, Matt Cooke has placed himself in hot water with the NHL, receiving numerous suspensions. He is infamous for elbowing Marc Savard in the head, causing Savard to miss so many games with a concussion that he is strongly considering retirement. Meanwhile, the NHL decided not to discipline Cooke which was a grave injustice.
The following season, Cooke was suspended four games after boarding Fedor Tyutin on February 8th, 2011. Rather than come back as a less aggressive player, Cooke was penalized, again. This time, after elbowing Rangers' defenseman McDonagh in the head.
The league suspended Matt Cooke for the remainder of the 2010-2011 season and the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. During that time, the Penguins were torched by the Tampa Bay Lightning en route to another game 7 home loss to end the season.
In the offseason, Cooke sat down with the Penguins' front office along with head coach Dan Bylsma. They talked about his game and how he had to change his tactics when it came to hitting players. While none of us were in the room during the meeting, you can almost guarantee the Penguins left Cooke with an ultimatum: change your game or you're out. After all, the Penguins could not keep a player who egregiously ignored the safety of the league while Mario Lemieux publicly denounced the NHL's disciplinary policy.
So Matt Cooke came back for the 2011-2012 season determined to change his game while still contributing in a positive manner. Over the course of the season, there certainly were some growing pains. At one point, Pens' fans criticized him for being too timid, claiming he forgot how to hit. Those criticisms have started to taper off as Cooke has produced. Whether he's had Jordan Staal or Sidney Crosby centering him, Cooke has made the most of his opportunities.
He's also been tested by several opposing players who were not as willing to believe he was a changed man. Cooke has had to take cheap shots while the refs seemingly looked the other way. Rather than retaliate, Cooke turned the other cheek and continued to play hockey the right way.
He's also continued to be one of the key pieces to the Penguins' 3rd ranked penalty kill and was the team nomination for the Masterson Trophy. This is a huge honor, considering the trophy represents perseverance, usually by a player coming back from injury to play extremely well. With Evgeni Malkin returning from a torn ACL to lead the league in points, it would only make sense to nominate him for the trophy. But the players chose Matt Cooke, maybe out of greater respect that he not only changed his game, but did so in a manner that made him more respectful and more productive.