Welcome to Matt-alytics, my weekly data-based feature for Pittsburgh Hockey Now.
When the season started, Ian Cole status in the City of Pittsburgh was already tenuous.
Combine an expiring contract with the Penguins’ offseason signings of Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin and Matt Hunwick, and suddenly there appeared to be little room at the table for one of the three Penguins on the ice for that pivotal two-man advantage penalty kill in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final in Nashville.
What’s more, NHL teams are increasingly looking for offense from the blue line, which isn’t Cole’s forté. He makes a solid breakout pass but there are plenty of Penguins better suited for modern five-man offensive strategies.
Yes, he blocks shots, setting a franchise record for that last year. Yes, he seemed to pair well with Schultz for the latter’s breakout 2016-17 season. Yes, Cole is popular in the dressing room, a fact reiterated by Matt Murray following Tuesday’s victory over Vegas at PPG Paints Arena.
A challenging circumstance
And yet, Cole’s on-the-outs status with Mike Sullivan and the coaching staff was only reinforced in November, when the 28-year-old was a healthy scratch for several games in a row while Jim Rutherford put him on the trade market.
It made sense: If the Penguins weren’t going to find a use for him, surely another team could use a two-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman who took on a career high in ice time the previous season. A deal couldn’t be struck, so Cole returned to the lineup when injuries to Schultz and Letang struck in December.
Most recently, Hunwick’s upper-body injury has kept Cole on the bench instead of in the press box, where he’s reluctantly spent a total of 14 games this season. This has seemed like justice on some levels, since Hunwick has been the Penguins’ worst defenseman by share of even-strength shot attempts (Corsi For) and attempts against per 60 minutes (Corsi Against).
On the other hand, Cole’s shot metrics aren’t terrific, with his Corsi For of 50.8 percent ranking fourth among regular Penguins defensemen, fifth if you count Chad Ruhwedel.
That doesn’t even tell the whole story. By Corsica Hockey‘s Expected Goals formula, which takes into account quality of scoring chances, Cole has been the worst blueliner on the team over the entire season, with the Penguins earning just 46.6 percent of the Expected Goals (xG) when he’s on the ice, compared to Hunwick’s 48.6 percent.
The situation has turned brighter for Cole recently, though, and not just because he’s actually playing hockey again.
Since the simultaneous return of Letang and Schultz on Jan. 2 in Philadelphia — an event that coincided with the start of the Penguins’ 11-3-0 run — Sullivan and Co. have been able to settle in with top-four defense pairs of Brian Dumoulin-Letang and Olli Määttä-Schultz.
Not to be forgotten, Cole has had good success when paired with the intriguing Jamie Oleksiak, which has been the case most of the time No. 28 has been active in the new year. Cole’s Corsi For with Oleksiak (51.2 percent) isn’t materially different, but Expected Goals reveals nearly a 5 percent boost for Cole when paired with the ‘Big Rig,’ to 51.1 percent. For context, that’s the fourth-best xG ratio for a Penguins’ defensive duo this season, with a minimum of 100 even-strength minutes together.
So something is working for Cole lately, no matter whether we attribute it to Oleksiak’s partnership or simple individual improvement. Anecdotally, Cole has even found himself venturing further into the offensive zone in recent games, something that Sullivan has said publicly is important for all of his defenders to do.
It hasn’t always worked out. Cole was a step slow with a pinch in Tuesday’s win over Vegas, leading to a scramble situation and a Dominik Simon penalty in the second period. But then there are moments like these …
As Cole is eager to playfully remind, he was a first-round draft pick, so the offensive ability shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. (So was Oleksiak, come to think of it.)
Watch Cole join the rush Saturday night in New Jersey and dish to Evgeni Malkin for a beauty:
As backed up by both data and video, Cole has hit a run of strong form just as the Penguins themselves have. We could look at this development in two ways.
For one, Cole has reestablished strong trade value if Rutherford chooses to deal from his defense to reinforce the Penguins down the middle. Ruhwedel has been good enough in moving the puck to slot in on the third pair, and Oleksiak could shift back over to his forehand (left) side to accommodate, at least until Hunwick returns.
At the same time, there’s a good chance that another defenseman will be injured at some point between now and the Penguins’ intended postseason destination, so it might be wiser to hold on to Cole and simply play the hot stick. Right now, that’s Cole.
The Penguins have committed $6.75 million and three years to Hunwick, so it stands to reason he’ll draw back in the lineup at some point. But there’s another strike against the team’s senior member: He and Oleksiak have produced the worst Corsi For (43.7 percent) and Expected Goals (43.7) ratios among the Penguins’ regular defense pairs.
The evidence is mounting. Cole over Hunwick isn’t some sentimental argument.
How will the Penguins respond? With a playoff spot anything but locked up, performance is paramount above all else.