Matt Cooke is a popular guy. I'd argue he's one of the most popular non-superstar players in NHL history. This is almost entirely because he ended Marc Savard's career with one of the most talked about hits in the past decade.
Before that, it seemed like he was known throughout the league as a pest, but mostly in that Darcy Tucker or Leo Komarov kind of way.
After the Savard hit in 2010, Cooke became known as the worst human being on the planet and the league actually brought in a rule to help eliminate blindside hits from the game. He remained the biggest villain in the league for a little while after that incident, receiving suspensions for hits on Fedor Tyutin and Ryan McDonagh in 2011. The latter resulted in Cooke's biggest suspension of his career (17 games), and seemed to trigger a lightbulb moment, as he returned the following season with 19 goals and only 44 total penalty minutes.
Cooke's most recent run-in with controversy was early this past season, when his skate sliced the leg of the Sens' Erik Karlsson during a routine puck battle. The NHL didn't view it as something that warranted any disciplinary action, and most fans and media (outside of Ottawa) agreed. For the most part, it looks as if Cooke has cleaned up his act since the McDonagh incident.
Of course, none of this is news to hockey fans. We all know this story. But I think it should be made clear that the way general managers approach Cooke, an unrestricted free agent this summer, will be much different than they would have approached the old Matt Cooke.
By now I'm sure you've heard that this year's unrestricted free agent crop is a bit thin. It's true. The chance to add a legitimate top six forward or top four blueliner isn't really there like it has been in the past. But as is the case every year, down in the weeds there are a few players that can be a decent addition to an NHL club. Matt Cooke falls in to that category, and will likely garner interest from a few teams if he goes to market. I wouldn't be surprised if the Leafs are one of them.
With Leo Komarov heading back overseas earlier this month, the Leafs lost their new pest almost as quickly as they got him. While Cooke has cut out the cheapshots, he still seems to gather a lot of attention and puts pressure on the puck as much as ever. It isn't like he's dialed everything back.
In terms of minutes played, Komarov averaged 13:56 in his only NHL season, while Cooke is a career 14:06. Both logged a lot of penalty-killing time this season, with Cooke averaging the third-most short-handed minutes among Penguins forwards (2:05), and Komarov third in that category for the Leafs as well (1:30).
There's also some history here when it comes to Matt Cooke and the Leafs. Nonis and Cooke both spent huge chunks of their careers with the Vancouver Canucks, at essentially the same time. Nonis joined the team in 1998 as Senior VP, Cooke began his playing career there the following year, and both left the organization in 2008.
Of course the biggest question for any free agent is the price. Right now Cooke is coming off a three year deal that averaged 1.8 million per season with the Penguins. At 34 years old, I don't see him raking it in this summer, but I'm guessing he could stay in the 1.5-1.8 range on a two or three year deal. For a mid-thirties guy, whoever offers up the extra term likely makes the most sense for him.
Personally, I wouldn't consider myself for or against signing Cooke. At this point with Nonis and the Leafs, any money that isn't spent on an Orr/McLaren-type is sort of a win. Since Cooke can actually skate and play hockey, I probably won't complain too much if his name comes up in the Leafs' rumor circles over the next few weeks.