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Matt Cooke’s despicable dirty elbow puts Mario Lemieux and NHL on the hot seat

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It seems that lately not a week goes by without some debate or outrage over a hit. In the last year, the name that comes up more often than not is Matt Cooke. Once again, Cooke delivered a very blatant and dirty hit, this time to New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Cooke’s hit put the Penguins down a man for five minutes as he was ejected for the blow. During the course of the major penalty, the Pens were able to score once shorthanded but allowed two goals to swing the game in their favor.

This time around, his chicken-wing elbow to the back of McDonagh’s head comes during a high-profile game just days after the NHL’s general managers met in Florida to figure out what to do about further reducing blows to the head. Thankfully McDonagh wasn’t injured on the play, that’s the good news. The bad news is that Matt Cooke is continued to terrorize opponents on the ice with his brand of hockey. When not delivering cheap shots, Cooke is an excellent checking forward but today’s incident against the Rangers proves that he just doesn’t get it and the guy that’s going to have his hands full in dealing with him is Penguins owner Mario Lemieux.

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After the Islanders-Penguins brawl in Long Island, Lemieux lambasted the league for not doing enough to protect its players. Lemieux was torn to shreds for his statements for his seeming ignorance that he employs a cheap shot artist of his own. Lemieux then later wrote a letter to Gary Bettman coming up with some very progressive ideas on how to improve punishment for dirty hits including fining teams large sums of money for keeping those players employed under their watch. In that letter, Lemieux owned up to the players of that ilk they have on their team, a nod to those critical of his first statement.

Now all those who clamored for Lemieux to recognize that his employment of Matt Cooke is part of the problem in the NHL have a loud voice again and rightfully so. For all the issues the league is having with players disrespecting each other and delivering questionable hits to one another Cooke is the poster boy for it all. From his boarding of Fedor Tyutin that earned him a four game suspension, to his hit on Ovechkin, and thinking back to his disgusting hit on Marc Savard a year ago the league hasn’t had this obvious of a pariah in its history.

The NHL has whiffed badly on previous instances on an alarmingly consistent basis to show that they give even half of a damn about player safety. For all the talk that went on at the GM meetings we’ve seen the league fail to take charge with their soft two-game punishment of Brad Marchand of the Bruins for connecting to the back of R.J. Umberger’s head with a blow and the failure to punish Patric Hornqvist of the Predators for his elbow on Boston’s Tyler Seguin. Two very dirty plays, two very head-scratching and soft penalties to both. This time around, the league has a lot to work with.

Cooke’s hit touches on a lot of things the league wants to eliminate from the game and makes him the perfect target for a message-sending landmark punishment:

  • He delivered a blindside hit
  • He delivered a blow to the head
  • He targeted McDonagh’s head
  • He’s a repeat offender

If all those things aren’t grounds for a major suspension, then there’s something inherently wrong with everything the league is doing when it comes to disciplining players.

The one guy who could make the debate over what the NHL will do irrelevant is Lemieux. If Lemieux believes in what he was preaching to the world in the wake of the Islanders thuggery against them, he’ll drop the hammer on Cooke himself before the NHL gets to. If Mario comes out and does that, he’ll set the example he was hoping to with his initial decree to the league. People respect Mario and if he takes a stand like that he’ll be an even bigger hero across the league.

We’re going to assume that the NHL’s response to Cooke’s hit will not be sufficient for most people. After all, how do you appropriately punish a player that’s escaped previous bans for any number of reasons and thus getting by on the NHL’s backwards logic that you’re essentially allowed one dirty play before you’re really punished. Cooke’s record looks virtually spotless considering he’s played over 800 games in the NHL and only been suspended for a total of 10 games in his career.

It seems that each time after he does something else foul we rush to yell that it’s an opportunity for the NHL to send a message to the rest of the players that wanton wretched play will not stand in the game. We’ve yet to be wowed by anything the league has done regarding other thugs and cheap shot artists and maybe for once the league can finally do something to be a positive influence instead of just talking about doing things the “right” way.

Stars’ Eakin is ‘prepared’ for Rangers retribution for that Lundqvist hit

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The New York Rangers were probably glad that Cody Eakin received a four-game suspension for his “intentional” hit on Henrik Lundqvist, but they might seek a more direct form of justice against the Dallas Stars tonight.

Eakin is aware of that fact, too, as he told the Dallas Morning News’ Mike Heika.

“I’m prepared. If it was our team, there would obviously be words that were shared,” Eakin said. “I’ll be prepared and I’ll continue to play a hard game. Whatever happens, happens.”

Hey, Lindy Ruff apparently hoped that Jamie Benn “emptied his frustration tank” during his outburst following Monday’s loss; perhaps Benn will have a little bit left over to defend Eakin?

The Rangers aren’t playing coy about the hit being a talking point.

“That’s not something you forget about,” Chris Kreider said, according to Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News. “I’m sure someone will have a conversation with him.”

Sounds so civil. Perhaps they will have this conversation over a soothing cup of chamomile tea?

Pre-game reading: Who’s on the ‘trade bait’ list?

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— Up top, relive last night’s wild affair in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins and Capitals combined for 15 goals. According to the NHL, it was the most goals in a game since Oct. 27, 2011, when the Jets beat the Flyers, 9-8 because Ilya Bryzgalov got “lost in the woods.”

— TSN has come up with its annual “trade bait” list of 20 players who could be dealt before the March 1 deadline. At the top of the list? Colorado’s Matt Duchene, who could certainly help a playoff contender. That being said, a Duchene trade may be more likely to occur in the offseason, when more teams have the flexibility to swing a big deal. Pure rentals on the list include Martin Hanzal, Thomas Vanek, and Radim Vrbata. (TSN)

Brad Marchand has no doubt that an NHL team would be accepting of a gay teammate. “Guys would accept that, no question. We’re a team in the [dressing] room and a family. It doesn’t matter what different beliefs guys have, or where they come from, or whatever the case may be. Guys would accept it. Again, in the room we’re a family. That’s the way it is on a hockey team, and that’s the way it will always be.” (ESPN)

— Sounds like the Toronto Maple Leafs have taken a page out of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ playbook. Or maybe it’s the Green Bay Packers’ playbook? Said d-man Connor Carrick: “When you’re defense, a lot of times you’re in the quarterback position and sometimes you’ve just got to throw it up, make a good play and let your receivers – let your forwards – do something with it.” (Sportsnet)

— The Vancouver Canucks have tried to stay competitive while retooling their roster. You can quibble with that philosophy, but according to Henrik Sedin, it’s better than tanking. “You can see on any given night, we’re in the games. I don’t think that was the case last year. There needs to be pieces brought in for sure to take that next big step. But at least we’re building a culture where everyone is accountable and we know what to expect from each other.” (The Province)

— According to Postmedia’s Michael Traikos, John Tortorella and Mike Babcock are the runaway leaders for the Jack Adams Award. We’d also throw Bruce Boudreau into the coach-of-the-year conversation, but if the Jackets and Leafs make the playoffs this season, it’s hard to imagine someone other than Torts or Babs getting the nod. Maybe Boudreau or Todd McLellan? But probably Torts or Babs. (National Post)

Enjoy the games!

Capuano firing puts focus on Snow

BETHPAGE, NY - SEPTEMBER 09:  (L-R) Head coach Jack Capuano, John Tavares, and General Manager Garth Snow of the New York Islanders pose for a photo during a press conference naming John Tavares the New York Islanders team captain at Carlyle on the Green on September 9, 2013 in Bethpage, New York.  (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images)
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A coaching change is rarely made without management shouldering some, or much, of the blame.

Case in point, last year, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford admitted that he was partly to blame for his team’s struggles, “because I didn’t get the defensemen that were necessary to have more movement from the back end.”

But Rutherford fired Mike Johnston anyway, and we all know where Mike Sullivan led the Pens, with some help from his GM.

Today, Jack Capuano was fired after a lengthy run as the head coach of the New York Islanders. And while there was certainly a case to be made for the move, GM Garth Snow will not, and should not, escape blame. The Isles’ roster is littered with underperformers, and it starts with Andrew Ladd, the team’s big offseason acquisition.

Halfway through the season, Ladd has just eight goals and four assists. He also turned 31 in December and is signed through 2022-23 for a cap hit of $5.5 million. 

Nikolay Kulemin is another aging, overpaid winger. So is 37-year-old Jason Chimera (or at the very least, he’s aging). For some reason, Cal Clutterbuck got a five-year, $17.5 million extension. He hits a lot, sure, but he only has three goals in 40 games. Meanwhile, Nino Niederreiter, whom the Isles traded to get Clutterbuck, has turned into an impact player for the Wild.

And we haven’t even mentioned the goaltending situation, which remains in flux. Thomas Greiss has been the Isles’ only good netminder this season. Greiss is also a 30-year-old pending unrestricted free agent who will undoubtedly be looking for a raise.

Now, do the Isles have some good, young prospects? Yes, they do. Mathew Barzal, Kieffer Bellows, Anthony Beauvillier, Michael Dal Colle, and Josh Ho-Sang all have real potential.

But management and ownership have a major task ahead of them in re-signing John Tavares, who can become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2018. So far, the captain has said he wants to stay. But with just 24 playoff games on his NHL resume, he’s also said he wants to have success.

“I think for myself, I’ve always shown and talked about my commitment here,” Tavares said recently. “Wanting to have success here and keep building on some of the good things we’ve done. Obviously, this [low] point’s been disappointing.”

It was reported back in December that the club’s new owners, Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky, had been searching for a “big name” to run the team. The Isles denied the report, but it immediately set off speculation about Snow’s future.

Don’t expect that speculation to die down now that Capuano has been shown the door. Snow was actually asked today if he thought his job was safe.

“I don’t even worry about that,” he told reporters.

It’s beyond his control anyway. All he can do now is hope for a miraculous turnaround. The Isles start a six-game home stand Thursday. They’re currently dead last in the Eastern Conference, eight points back of the second wild-card spot.

“We need to turn this ship around,” said Snow, “and I really have a lot of confidence in our coaching staff and in our players.”

Of course, he’s said that before.

Goalie nods: Interesting times in St. Louis, as Hutton makes third straight start

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 01: Carter Hutton #40 of the St. Louis Blues stops a shot by Vincent Hinostroza #48 of the Chicago Blackhawks during a preseason game at the United Center on October 1, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Jake Allen‘s had trouble adjusting to life as the Blues’ No. 1 netminder — see here, here, here and here — and now, he’s getting an awfully long look at St. Louis’ No. 2.

Tonight, Carter Hutton will make his third consecutive start when the Blues host the Sens at Scottrade. The decision to stick with Hutton comes after he stopped 55 of 56 shots in back-to-back wins over the Sharks and Ducks — on the road, no less — and posted a 23-save shutout in San Jose on Saturday.

Allen, meanwhile, hasn’t played since a 5-1 loss to Los Angeles last Thursday in which he was hooked in favor of Hutton. That was, somewhat infamously, when Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock dropped some pretty frank talk on his beleaguered No. 1.

“This is really on the athlete. There’s times in your young career where you just said you’ve had enough and then you’ve got to go turn it around the other way,” Hitchcock said of Allen’s struggles. “He’s in a position where he’s the guy that has to really take charge here.

“He’s got to man-up and get better.”

Allen, 26, was tasked with carrying the load this season after the Blues dealt Brian Elliott to Calgary at the draft. His status as the club’s No. 1 was cemented with a four-year, $17.4 million deal signed not long after. But things haven’t gone to plan since — Allen’s struggled all year, and is currently saddled with a .900 save percentage and 2.76 GAA.

This latest development is really compelling. For most of the year, Hitch has adhered to the “he’s our guy, we gotta stick with him” philosophy with Allen — until now. Perhaps Hitch is tired of waiting. Or perhaps he sees Nashville in the rear view — the Preds have won three straight, and are now just four points back of St. Louis in the Central.

For the Sens, Mike Condon starts in goal.

Elsewhere…

— More of the same for the red-hot ‘Canes, who will give Cam Ward his 20th consecutive start. No word yet on who goes for the host Blue Jackets, as Sergei Bobrovsky has been dealing with an illness.

Henrik Lundqvist‘s trusty backup, Antti Raanta, is out until the All-Star break with a lower-body injury, so it’s King Henrik in goal for the foreseeable future. No word yet on who Dallas will start, though Kari Lehtonen did play in yesterday’s loss to Buffalo.

Robin Lehner, fresh off a 31-save win over Dallas on Monday, is back in for the Sabres. He’ll be up against Frederik Andersen in Toronto.

— The Devils will stick with Cory Schneider after he beat the Canucks in Vancouver on Sunday. The host Wild are going with Devan Dubnyk, who continues to be lights-out this season.

— It’s Roberto Luongo versus Chad Johnson as the Panthers take on the Flames in Calgary.

Semyon Varlamov, who’s lost his first two games since returning from a groin injury, will get the start in Colorado as the Avs host the Blackhawks. Chicago counters with Corey Crawford.

Jonathan Bernier took advantage of a rare start on the weekend, shutting out the Coyotes, but the Ducks will go back to John Gibson when the host the Bolts. Tampa Bay has yet to announce a starter, but Ben Bishop did play (and win) yesterday in L.A.

Ryan Miller gets back in goal for Vancouver after Jacob Markstrom played against New Jersey on Sunday. Looks like Miller will face off against Pekka Rinne, who starts for the visiting Preds.