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Updated: July 8th, 2013 4:42pm
Wild GM isn't concerned about criticism over Matt Cooke signing

Wild GM isn't concerned about criticism over Matt Cooke signing

by Judd Zulgad
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Some Minnesota Wild fans might be upset about the team's decision to sign free-agent winger Matt Cooke to a three-year, $7.5 million contract last week, but that doesn't concern general manager Chuck Fletcher in the least.

In fact, Fletcher told the "Judd & Dubay" show Monday on 1500 ESPN, that he hasn't heard any complaints about Cooke, a well-known NHL agitator and former Wild nemesis during his time with the Vancouver Canucks.

"To be honest with you, I haven't heard anything," Fletcher said when asked about the reaction the Cooke move has gotten. "I've done a couple of radio interviews and everyone keeps telling me there's been a lot of reaction. I haven't heard a thing and frankly I try not to worry about that stuff. We just have to put the best team on the ice and if we do, things will take care of themselves."

Cooke, 34, left the Pittsburgh Penguins after five seasons to sign with the Wild on Friday. The move came on the same day the Wild dealt winger Devin Setoguchi to the Winnipeg Jets for a second-round selection in 2014. Setoguchi was entering the last season of his contract and Fletcher's transaction cleared $3 million in cap space for the Wild.

Cooke, who has spent time with Washington and Pittsburgh, in addition to Vancouver, had eight goals and 13 assists in 48 games with the Penguins last season and was assessed 36 penalty minutes. That came after he had 19 goals and 19 assists in 2011-12 and served 44 minutes in penalties. That was a sharp drop off from the 129 minutes in penalties he served in 2010-11.

"Matt was a good signing for us," Fletcher said. "He's a good player and will help us in a lot of ways. He was at a price point quite a bit below Setoguchi, so it helps with our (salary) cap as well. We were in a situation where realistically going into the summer we probably had to drop our salaries by 8 to 10 million dollars. (The salary cap will go from from $70.2 million in 2012-13 to $64.3 million in 2013-14.) 

"Anytime you do that you're going to (lose) some players you would have otherwise liked to have kept and you're going to have make some value type of signings. We were fortunate, Niklas Backstrom gave us a very cap friendly contract as did Matt Cooke and Keith Ballard. We were able to add some key pieces, recognizing we lost some key pieces. So it's a challenge but that's what happens when the cap drops as dramatically as it does."

While Cooke's penalty minutes might have declined, his reputation remains far from stellar. Cooke will be remembered by many for his hit to the head of Boston's Marc Savard in March 2010. Savard missed almost two months and, while Cooke was not suspended, that hit caused the NHL to put in a new rule designed to prohibit blindside hits to the head.

Cooke did receive a lengthy suspension in March 2011 for elbowing New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the head. Cooke had to sit out the final 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs. Even Penguins general manager Ray Shero criticized Cooke for the hit.

Cooke claimed to have changed his game after that but there were some who had their doubts.

This past February, Cooke found himself involved in another controversial play when Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson, who won the Norris Trophy the previous season, had has Achilles' tendon cut by Cooke's skate as the two battled along the boards.

Cooke was not suspended by the NHL, but Karlsson's injury drew plenty of attention and some suggested Cooke had stepped on Karlsson on purpose.

Cooke also drew attention, but again escaped suspension, during the Eastern Conference finals this past season after he checked the Bruins' Adam McQuaid from behind. Cooke received a five-minute major and a game misconduct for the hit.

So how will Cooke be accepted in the Wild locker room?

"If you dislike playing against him, it means you like playing with him," Fletcher said. "I think one of the happier guys in the organization is Zach Parise. Cooke used to chase him around the ice and play hard and Zach is thrilled.

"Zach thought it would be a great addition to our hockey club and Mike Rupp has played with him and Dany Heatley knows him well from some Team Canada tournaments, world championships, in the past. He knows our players and everybody has different skill sets. Matt's ability to play the game of hockey is so incredibly underrated it's not even funny. People perceive him a certain way, but his overall value to a team far surpasses the perception and we're going to be the beneficiaries to that."

Fletcher also has no issues with Cooke's history or style.

"I was in Pittsburgh when we signed him so I know Matt very well personally and he's absolutely right," Fletcher said when asked about Cooke's contention he has changed. "Changed in what way? He's a very good forechecker. He goes to hit. I think the last two years if you ask Brendan Shanahan, who's in charge of NHL discipline, he would say Matt is one of the prime examples of guys that have laid off that (head type of) hit.

"A few years ago there was a lot of talk about head shots and we tried to do what we could as a league to increase player safety and player awareness about some of these blindside hits and lateral hits. The speed of the game has just been increasing every year since the first work stoppage in 2004-05 and it's a fast game now, the way we play, the way we back check. Players are getting hit hard, and Matt had to make an adjustment and we feel he did.

"I think another player who had to make an adjustment was Cal Clutterbuck (whom the Wild recently traded to the Islanders). I noticed last year several times Cal would not finish checks where he may have a few years ago. That's just out of respect to the new rules and for player safety. There are players in this league that had to make adjustments. ...

"But Matt is a player who is one of the better penalty killers in the league, he's a guy that scores 15-16 goals every year, he's a good skater, he's a smart forechecker, he protects the puck well, he angles incredibly well. Our penalty killing last year was 18th, and Matt Cooke has been one of the premier penalty killers in the league. There's a lot more to his game than three or four incidents that people want to define him by." 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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