Will Matt Cooke be a changed man next season?

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While the NHL is largely populated by good guys and “aw shucks” characters, the violent sport breeds a certain amount of pests and hitters who gain the ire of the general hockey populace. Few players can compete with the villainous reputation that Matt Cooke has developed with fans, writers and hockey people in general, though.

Despite possessing strong penalty killing chops (Cooke averaged 2:45 minute of shorthanded time per game in 2010-11) and the occasional bits of offensive flourish, Cooke is defined by the many dirty hits he’s delivered over the years. Much of the hate comes from his “legal” hit on Marc Savard during the 2009-10 season, but he’s been a repeat offender who received two different suspensions last season alone. It seemed like fans of other NHL teams brought up Cooke’s name mere moments after Penguins owner and former star Mario Lemieux complained about the New York Islanders’ conduct during that notorious February 11 “brawlfest.” His antics are seen as a black eye on the Penguins franchise, if not the sport as a whole.

That being said, there are glimpses of humanity even for a supposed “monster” like Cooke. HBO’s 24/7 series caught some adorable moments between Cooke and his son. Like many other hockey players, he seems like a far more mild mannered person once he’s off the ice – his image becomes more mixed when you consider his charitable work.

Perhaps most importantly, it sounds like Cooke is hoping to clean up his act. That’s something he discussed with the Altoona Mirror after being involved in ceremonial first pitch activities for Double-A baseball team the Altoona Curve this week.

Cooke’s list of on-ice transgressions may read like the average felon’s rap sheet, but at the end of last season, Cooke promised the Penguins and their president, former Hall-of-Fame center Mario Lemieux, that he would change his ways.

“It’s a mentality, it’s how I’m going to approach the game,” Cooke said of his plan to clean up his act. “And the team has worked hard in supporting me to accomplish these minor tweaks in my game.”

Cooke told the media after the hit on McDonagh that “I don’t want to hurt anybody. That’s not my intention. I know I can be better.”

Indeed, Cooke is a compassionate humanitarian off the ice. Cooke and his wife Michelle – who now live in Pittsburgh with their three children – run a charity known as The Cooke Family Foundation of Hope that operates in the Vancouver area and has raised thousands of dollars to help families and individuals facing a wide variety of life crises.

Technically, Cooke shot a “first puck” while his 7-year-old son Jackson threw out a first pitch. Here’s video of that unusual ceremony, found via Puck Daddy.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

When it comes to Cooke’s reputation in the eyes of many, the damage has already been done. The bottom line, however, is that Cooke will probably be around for a while; his current contract won’t expire until after the 2012-13 season. With that in mind, here’s hoping that Cooke changes his ways, because his previous “style” amounted to a lot of dangerous hits that frequently went over the line. Under all that ugliness, there’s an effective NHL hockey player – even if many will understandably find it difficult to forgive him for his past transgressions.

Yes, NHL will share protected, available player lists for expansion draft

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We can debate all day how much the NHL, Vegas Golden Knights and others involved really want to do this, but they’re making the right choice with the expansion draft nonetheless. The league will make protected and available players lists available at the same time they’re shared with teams, according to NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika.

(The NHL tweeted out as much, too.)

Could this lead to feelings being hurt or perhaps even certain sneaky deals being scuttled? Perhaps, but those are headaches that management should be expected to absorb.

The bottom line is that an expansion draft is a dream come true for armchair GMs, rumor enthusiasts, fantasy sports fans and … really, just about anyone interested in hockey. It would be a bewildering decision to try to keep all of this information locked down, even for a league that frequently garners a reputation for choosing comfort over entertainment value.

Cotsonika reports that such lists will probably be made available on June 18, though that isn’t set in stone.

(If you’re the type to take off work if a trade deadline was exciting, you might want to start drumming up excuses/putting aside vacation time/practicing your best “I’m sick” voice just in case …)

Cap Friendly provides a handy timeline for the expansion draft process:

Goalie nods: Blues give Hutton first start in two weeks

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Even though Jake Allen has played extremely well of late, Carter Hutton will get the call when the Blues take on the Coyotes in Arizona tonight.

Some of this could have to do with the opponent. The Coyotes are playing out the string on a forgettable campaign, and have lost six of their last seven. That includes a 4-1 defeat in St. Louis on Monday (in which Allen stopped 27 of 28 shots for the win).

As mentioned above, Allen has been great in March and deserves huge praise for turning his season around. He’s gone 8-1-1 this month with a remarkable .951 save percentage, allowing a mere 14 goals over his 10 appearances.

Hutton, though, has played equally well when called upon. He’s gone 4-1-0 over his last five starts, posting a .962 save percentage and a pair of shutouts. In his last outing, on Mar. 16, he allowed just one goal in a victory in San Jose.

For the Coyotes, Louis Domingue is in goal.

Elsewhere…

— A good matchup in Pittsburgh tonight, as the two defending Stanley Cup champions go head-to-head. Marc-Andre Fleury starts for the Penguins, while Corey Crawford goes for the Blackhawks.

— Calgary can clinch a playoff spot with a win tonight so, unsurprisingly, it’ll go with No. 1 Brian Elliott. No word yet on who starts for the visiting Kings, though it could be Ben Bishop after Jonathan Quick lost last night in Edmonton.

Philipp Grubauer gets the call for Washington, after Braden Holtby led the Caps to victory in Minnesota on Tuesday. Grubauer will take on Calvin Pickard, who starts for the Avs.

Vegas wants ‘progressive’ head coach, says McPhee

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Golden Knights GM George McPhee continued to list the characteristics he wants from a head coach this week, explaining that he’s searching for a forward-thinking bench boss.

“We want someone who is very current on the game, who is progressive on how the game should be played,” McPhee said in a recent phone call with season ticket holders, per the club website. “We’re looking for that progressive guy that can really help us through the early years and help develop our team and our players.”

So, time to connect the dots.

Back in November, Vegas owner Bill Foley laid the initial groundwork for McPhee’s coaching profile, saying he wanted to hire an experienced head coach.

“He’s not looking for a first-termer,” said Foley. “Some may or may not be available. … I would say the coach that we name is going to be a recognizable individual.”

Among the names that have already been floated, many fit the above billing: Jack Capuano, Gerard Gallant, Ken Hitchcock and Michel Therrien, among others.

Vegas has already spoken with Gallant and reportedly made contact with Capuano as well, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Gallant was nominated for last year’s Jack Adams as the NHL’s top coach, and McPhee is familiar with Capuano, having worked as an adviser to Isles GM Garth Snow prior to taking the Golden Knights gig.

It’s also believed former Flyers head coach Craig Berube is being considered, along with current Montreal associate Kirk Muller.

 

Pre-game reading: Tonight’s Kings-Flames game could get testy

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— Up top, the Calgary Flames don’t want Matthew Tkachuk to play any differently — even though Drew Doughty called the rookie winger a “pretty dirty player” after taking the 19-year-old’s elbow to the face earlier this month.

— Tkachuk was suspended two games for that elbow. Still, there could be fireworks tonight when the Flames and the Kings meet again in Calgary. Especially after Tkachuk replied to Doughty’s remarks with the following: “I expected more from him, honestly, than to go right to the media and start complaining after a loss.” (Calgary Sun)

— TSN’s Gary Lawless thinks Sergei Bobrovsky should win the Hart Trophy over Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby. Lawless writes: “No other player has been as important to his team and its results as Bobrovsky has to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Take Bobrovsky off the C-bus and it’s not necessarily in the ditch but it isn’t nipping at the Capitals for the league lead.” (TSN)

— Coyotes captain Shane Doan is understandably frustrated about the lower-body injury that’s kept him out of the lineup the past six games. At 40, this could be Doan’s last year in the NHL, so hopefully he’s able to return and play at least once more in front of all his fans. (Arizona Republic)

— Golden Knights owner Bill Foley doesn’t want each team’s protected list to be made public ahead of the expansion draft. That being said, Foley is also realistic: “I’d rather we know what each team has left unprotected and we make our picks and it’s a big surprise. I think there’s going to be a lot of leaks, though. I found one thing about the NHL that … everyone talks.” (Yahoo)

— An appreciation of the Detroit Red Wings playoff streak, which will finally come to an end this season. The last time the Wings missed was 1990. As noted by Nick Cotsonika: “No player in the NHL today was in the NHL then, not even Jaromir Jagr. Nine of the franchises in the NHL today weren’t in the NHL, 10 if you include the Vegas Golden Knights, who begin play next season.” (NHL.com)

Enjoy the games!