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Updated: April 22nd, 2014 4:13pm
Zulgad: It's difficult to buy the 'changed man' act from Matt Cooke

Zulgad: It's difficult to buy the 'changed man' act from Matt Cooke

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

How could the Wild sign this cheap shot artist?

That was the immediate reaction last July, when the team announced that winger Matt Cooke had agreed to a $7.5 million, three-year contract.

Cooke had two strikes against him as far as the Wild fan base was concerned. 1) He was considered to be an extremely dirty player who had built a reputation as a guy who had no issues causing injury; and 2) he had spent six-plus seasons serving as a pest for the Wild's rival in the Northwest Division, the Vancouver Canucks.

Cooke had been suspended by the NHL six times in his career, causing him to miss 25 games in the regular season and seven more in the playoffs.

Cooke did not attempt to deny his past upon his arrival in Minnesota, but he also went on a public relations campaign to make the case that he had changed his ways.

A factor in Cooke's favor was that he hadn't been suspended since March 2011. Cooke, playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, had elbowed New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the head and was banned for the final 10 games of the regular season and also the first round of the postseason.

Cooke claimed he realized the error of his ways after the McDonagh hit and he knew that something had to change.

Nonetheless, Cooke did find himself at the center of a few questionable plays following the McDonagh incident.

The most notable came on Feb. 13, 2013, when Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson, the defending Norris Trophy winner at the time, had his season ended after his left Achilles' tendon was cut in a collision with Cooke.

Karlsson refused to say he thought Cooke stepped on him on purpose but added, "I don't think it would have happened if it was another type of player." The NHL did not suspend Cook for his actions on the play, despite the attention to Karlsson's injury that came because it was caused by Cooke.

As promised, Cooke had spent the 2013-14 season on his best behavior.

He played in all 82 games, finishing with 10 goals and 18 assists with 54 penalty minutes. Cooke was still a tough player but the cheap shots that made him a lightning rod were gone.

And then came Monday night at Xcel Energy Center.

Despite the protests of some Wild homers, there is no debating the fact that Cooke's knee-on-knee hit on Colorado defenseman Tyson Barrie in the second period was a cheap shot. Barrie suffered an injury to his medial collateral ligament that will keep him out four-to-six weeks, meaning his season is likely finished.

Cooke received only a two-minute kneeing penalty. The NHL has far different plans for Cooke's punishment and has invited him to attend a hearing to make his case. That in-person hearing will take place at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at NHL headquarters in New York.

That means that Cooke almost is certain to be suspended for five or more games. All evidence of previous bad acts will be used against him.

On the surface, this is a shame for the Wild.

Cooke played the left wing on Monday night on a third line that included Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine. That line was put in charge of holding the Avs' top line, centered by the dynamic Nathan MacKinnon, in check.

That Colorado line had combined for seven goals and 17 points in winning the first two games of the playoff series against the Wild, but was held to a combined seven shots in Game 3 as the Wild beat the Avalanche, 1-0, in overtime.

Before his cheap shot at 2 minutes, 2 seconds of the second, Cooke had helped set a veteran tone for that line and was providing exactly what coach Mike Yeo wanted.

But if the Wild feels any hurt from losing Cooke, it won't compare to what the Avs have lost.

The sad reality is that the Wild, and their fans, could very quietly make an argument that they will take the tradeoff of sacrificing Cooke for Barrie, who had 13 goals and 38 points during the season.

As for Cooke, he is back to square one.

Don't believe it? Google his name at some point and see how many stories pop up about his hit on Barrie that include documenting of various infractions and cheap shots from his past.

The Wild figures to have a player in 2014-15 who might be watched far more closely by NHL officials and referees than he was this past season. The "I'm a changed man act" falls flat when it's clear the change is only temporary.

Cooke has gone from a guy who worked long and hard to shed himself of substantial baggage only to find that it's all likely to return.

Matt Cooke has only one person to blame for this and that is the man in the mirror.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. 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.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
In this story: Matt Cooke, Mike Yeo
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