In the midst of a season where it’s hazardous to one’s health to be a Penguins’ defenseman, one man has taken up the cudgel to be the iron horse on the blue line and play in every game — Ian Cole. If your face is one of bland indifference, it’s basically a facial representation of Ian Cole’s no-frills game. When Cole was obtained from the Blues in March 2015 for Robert Bortuzzo and a 7th round pick in the 2016 draft, it seemed to most as if the two teams just swapped 3rd-pairing defensemen. Ian Cole was a spare part, an afterthought, for the Blues during most of his time there. In his first four seasons, his games played totals were 26, 26, 15, and 46. It wasn’t until the 2014-15 season that he got steady ice time, resulting in 54 games played prior to his trade to the Penguins, where he got 20 more regular season games. For the remainder of the 2015 season and last year, Cole was good not great.
An eyebrow or two may have been raised after GM Jim Rutherford gave Cole a 3 yr/$6.3M deal after the 2015 season. But this year, the 28-year old Ian Cole has taken his game up a notch or two on both ends of the ice. Cole has established a career-high in goals with 5 and has obliterated his previous-high point total of 17 with 26 so far this season. Cole, though, would be the first to tell you that he’s not here for his offense; that’s been more of a happy by-product. Cole is leading the Penguins in blocked shots by a far margin over his closest challenger — 189 for Cole to 110 for Justin Schultz. With the way Pens’ d-men are dropping like flies, you would not be remiss to consider asking Dana Heinze to encase Cole in bubble wrap before he skates on to the ice. And although he’s not a dominating physical presence at 6′-1″/219, Cole is 4th on the team in hits with 155 and far and away the leader amongst the defense corps.
Cole has been a steady force on the 2nd pairing of defense for virtually the whole year and he hasn’t looked out of place there. Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley, when healthy, were the correct choice to occupy the 3rd pairing this year. In a perfect, healthy world, Cole would return to being matched up with Justin Schultz on this 2nd pair for the playoffs, but that presumes that Letang will be healthy and that Letang-Dumoulin are the 1st pairing.
Perhaps out of necessity due the myriad of injuries, Cole has logged the most ice time per game of his career at 19:47, a full 2:30 more per game than just last year. It will be interesting to see how ice time is divvied out between the d-men pairings in the playoffs. If Letang is 100% healthy and ready to go, you have to think that he’ll vacuum up around 28 minutes per game, as is his wont. But now the Pens have a legitimately strong 2nd pairing in Schultz-Cole that may enable Mike Sullivan to either back off Letang’s minutes by a couple or be comfortable in playing Cole-Schultz in the low 20’s of minutes to minimize how much ice time is given to the Pens’ potentially shaky 3rd pairing (pick from the Daley/Maatta/Streit/Hainsey/Ruhwedel bouillabaisse).
Back in early December, in the aptly-titled “Too Early Look At The NHL Expansion Draft“, I had the Penguins ultimately choosing to protect Letang-Maatta-Dumoulin in the upcoming expansion draft. Since that time, Justin Schultz (at that time it was unclear if he was a Restricted or Unrestricted Free Agent — he’s Restricted) has locked down a spot behind Letang and Cole has now, for me, entered consideration for the 3rd protected spot. I’m now thinking that the Penguins will expose Maatta and his remaining 5 years at $4.1M/year in the draft to dare Vegas to take him. And I’m a big Brian Dumoulin fan, but Ian Cole brings an element of toughness and tenacity to the blue line that doesn’t exist without him. Even if he only has one year of control left it is for a relative pittance of $2.1M that has proven to be worth it this season. Naturally, this is all fluid and I’ll probably change my mind a couple of times before June.
As the Penguins gird themselves to enter into the steel cage match that will be their presumed first round matchup against the Blue Jackets, Ian Cole will look to be the sturdy rock around which the defense corps will build out. For the Penguins’ postseason plans, Ian Cole is suddenly a key cog for their future success.