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.

PHT Morning Skate: 8 big questions heading into draft; First buyout of 2018

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Sportsnet tackles the eight biggest questions heading into tonight’s NHL Entry Draft. What will the Habs do with the third overall pick? Will anything happen with Columbus’ Artemi Panarin? (Sportsnet)

• Former NHL defenseman Nick Boynton has decided to join the NHL concussion lawsuit. He’ll also be donating his brain to science. Boynton has been battling substance abuse and depression. (TSN)

• There’s no denying that Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds could be on the move in the next hours/days, but will the team actually pull the trigger on a deal involving their talented forward? (Philly.com)

• The Canadiens will have an early selection in tonight’s draft, but will they hit a home run or swing-and-miss again? The Montreal Gazette looks at the Habs’ inability to develop their first-rounders over the last 33 years. (Montreal Gazette)

• Over the course of their history, the Sabres have done pretty well when they’ve selected defensemen in the first round. That run of success should continue on Friday night with Rasmus Dahlin. (WGR550)

• Stars GM Jim Nill confirmed that he expects to sign forward Valeri Nichushkin on July 1st. He’s been in the KHL for the last two years. (NHL.com/Stars)

• Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty has been one of the best bargains in the NHL over the last few years (he’s been making $4.5 million per year). Now that he’s in the final year of his contract, expect him not to leave any money on the table even if it means changing addresses. (Sportsnet)

• You can now check out each PHWA voter’s ballot from this year’s NHL Awards. There’s some head-scratchers on there. (PHWA)

• Speaking of ballots, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Matthew DeFranks explains why he voted for Sean Couturier as his Selke winner instead of Aleksander Barkov. (Sun-Sentinel)

• And we have our first buyout of 2018, as the Edmonton Oilers decided to put an end to their relationship with Eric Gryba. That means that the Oilers will be carrying almost $2 million in dead money next season. (Edmonton Sun)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Dates of note from the 2018-19 NHL schedule

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The 2018-19 NHL schedule has arrived and the 1,271-game journey to the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins Oct. 4 and ends April 6. We’ll have banners being raised, old friends being reacquainted, outdoor games, games in Europe and nearly a full slate on the season’s final day.

Here’s a look at a dozen notable dates on this coming season’s schedule:

Oct. 3, 2018 – Boston Bruins at Washington Capitals

It’s not the Penguins like we all wished, so the Capitals will have to raise their first Stanley Cup banner against the Bruins. They’ll also be playing for a new head coach before traveling to Pittsburgh for a visit with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins the next night.

Also on Opening Night, we’ll get to see the Toronto Maple Leafs hosting the Montreal Canadiens, the Calgary Flames visiting the Vancouver Canucks and the San Jose Sharks playing host to the Anaheim Ducks.

Oct. 4, 2018 — Philadelphia Flyers at Vegas Golden Knights

An historic inaugural season ended in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. But despite the tough defeat, there was plenty for the Golden Knights and their fans to be proud of. When fans return to T-Mobile Arena for their 2018 home opener, there will be a nice celebration with a banner or two going up in the rafters.

Boston Bruins at Buffalo Sabres

Sabres fans get a first glimpse of Rasmus Dahlin in action when they take on the Bruins in the home opener. The expected 2018 No. 1 overall pick brings plenty of hope to Buffalo as the fanbase prays hard that he, Jack Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt can end their years of misery.

Oct. 6, 2018 – Nashville Predators at New York Islanders

Trotz makes his debut as Islanders head coach against one of his old teams. And no matter how free agency goes, this will be an interesting night at Barclays Center. Either John Tavares will be in the Islanders lineup, having committed to the franchise with a long-term extension and thereby garnering a huge ovation, or he’ll be wearing another jersey and the mood in Brooklyn will be quite glum.

This day will also see the Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils facing off in the NHL Global Series in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Oct. 10, 2018 – Vegas Golden Knights at Washington Capitals

A rematch of the Stanley Cup Final that saw the Capitals victorious in five games. Maybe by Oct. 10 Alex Ovechkin will have been separated from the Cup.

Oct. 26, 2018 – Ottawa Senators at Colorado Avalanche

Matt Duchene has been a visiting player against the Avs, but that game actually took place in Sweden last season, so he’s yet to return to Pepsi Center as a Senator. Now, given the state of the Senators, we may get to late October and Duchene could be on a different team. But if he’s still with Ottawa, the reception he gets upon coming back to Denver should be interesting considering how his time with the franchise ended.

Dec. 1, 2018 – Columbus Blue Jackets at New York Islanders

As the Islanders prepare to leave Barclays Center in a few years, this game will be the first of 20 this coming season at their former home of Nassau Coliseum, now known as NYCB Live. The team will play games there over the next few seasons as a new arena gets built by Belmont race track in Elmont.

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Nov. 1-2, 2018 – Florida Panthers vs. Winnipeg Jets

In the second set of Global Games, Patrik Laine and Aleksander Barkov head home to Finland as the Jets meet the Panthers in Helsinki.

Jan. 1, 2019 – Chicago Blackhawks vs. Boston Bruins

Hey, what do you know? An outdoor game featuring the Blackhawks. After taking a year off, the Blackhawks are back outside for the Winter Classic and will take on the Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium. There will be plenty of shots of Touchdown Jesus and lots and lots of stories of Vinnie Hinostroza’s time in South Bend.

Jan. 18, 2019 – New York Islanders at Washington Capitals

Trotz returns to D.C. where he’ll get some very, very long ovations from the crowd and enjoy a tribute video ending with him raising the Stanley Cup.

Jan. 25-26, 2019 – All-Star Weekend, San Jose

A bit of a change this year as the Skills Competition has been moved to Friday night of All-Star Weekend and the 3-on-3 divisional tournament taking place on Saturday.

Feb. 23, 2019 – Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

The home-and-home Battle of Pennsylvania outdoor series concludes this February when the Penguins visit the Flyers at Lincoln Financial Field for a Stadium Series game. The Penguins were 4-2 victors when the two met in 2017 at Heinz Field. Hopefully the jersey choices are a little better than what they wore in their previous meeting.

April 6, 2019 – Super Saturday

The final day of the 2018-19 regular season will see 30 teams in action, with hopefully some playoff seeds and spots still up for grabs before we get to the postseason.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL salary cap ceiling set at $79.5M for 2018-19 season

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As expected, the NHL and NHLPA announced on Thursday that the salary cap ceiling for the 2018-19 season will increase to $79.5 million. That’s a $4.5 million increase from this past season.

Going back to December, the NHL’s revenues told them that the ceiling would rise by at least $3 million.

“The league has never been healthier,” said Commissioner Gary Bettman said at December’s Board of Governors meeting. “The game has never been healthier. Our franchises have never been healthier.”

Important news for teams like Ottawa and Arizona, the salary cap floor for next season will be $58.8 million, which means it’s time to prepare those Marian Hossa trade proposals!

The ceiling increase is also good news for those teams that regular spend to the limit. Now they have some more breathing room to either bring back some unrestricted or restricted free agents they want to sign or allow them to add a bit more salary under their cap if they want to go shopping this summer.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

A talk with Lou Lamoriello excited Barry Trotz about joining Islanders

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Barry Trotz wasn’t divulging details — such is the life of working for Lou Lamoriello. But the New York Islanders head coach did say he’d already spoken with captain John Tavares within hours of officially being hired.

We’re still to reach a resolution on that front, and as far as Trotz’s resignation after leading the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup two weeks ago, he said it was out of “principle.” The Cup victory meant a clause in his contract activated giving him a two-year extension and a $300,000 raise. He wanted a longer term and a richer deal, but the Capitals weren’t willing to go down that route.

[Islanders hire Barry Trotz as head coach]

“When it came to the business aspect, I was willing to listen,” Trotz said during a conference call with reporters on Thursday. “From my standpoint, I felt that it wasn’t really sincere what we did together. I decided it was better to just move on.”

Not long after he parted with the Capitals, Trotz’s agent got a call from Lamoriello expressing interest. Trotz flew in and met with the Islanders president and GM earlier this week and talked about a vision for the team. That’s when the head coach got excited about coming on board.

“If you know anything about Lou Lamoriello and his background and what he does, he’ll do what it takes to win,” Trotz said. “That got me excited right away.”

As for a staff, Trotz said Lane Lambert, his longtime assistant in Nashville and Washington, would be his “No. 1 choice” if he chooses to come to New York. Goaltending coach Mitch Korn could also be in the mix to follow Trotz.

With two straight seasons of playoffless hockey, Trotz understands that there’s work to do with the team, even beyond what happens with Tavares. But having coached against the Islanders for years, he knows there are some good pieces on the roster that could help in a turnaround.

“If we can get our structure right and we get our pace right, we’ll be able to score, we’ll be able to defend much better and we’re going to fix up some holes,” he said.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.