The trade drama is mounting around one of the colorful characters in the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room. Ian Cole has been a healthy scratch for three games to preserve his health while the team and his agent seek a trade. If and when a trade happens, the Penguins are making a mistake.
Cole is both the lowest paid defenseman on an otherwise expensive blueline corps and a defender with skills unique to the Penguins. Cole brings a tough element to the game and has been very good as the counter-balance to offensive defenseman Justin Schultz.
Despite mixing and matching defensive partners this season, Cole has yielded the least offensive chances of the Penguins defenseman.
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, Ian Cole leads the team in all shot suppression categories. In 20 games, Cole has allowed only 122 shots against. Contrast that against Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang who have yielded over 200, with a few more games played.
Cole’s Scoring Chances Against (135), and High Danger Scoring Chances Against (55) also lead the crew (per game average). Second best in all categories is Chad Ruhwedel, who has 155 shots against in 21 games.
Matt Hunwick, in just 11 games has been on the ice for 114 shots against. Yikes.
The Penguins are about to lose a gritty, shot blocking, stay home defender, who makes half as much money as his contemporaries. Cole plays the puck simply and does not turn the puck over. He was outstanding in each of the Stanley Cup runs. His battered body rivaled that of Nick Bonino.
Perhaps it isn’t Cole who should be on the trading block. Perhaps the Penguins should consider moving one of the higher priced defensemen who has been part of the Penguins defensive woes which have existed for over a year.
Something just doesn’t make sense here.
Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta are fine NHL defenders. However, they have been victimized when the Penguins do not dominate the puck. They’ve also not shown an ability to help change that dynamic. Neither has Cole, however, his lower salary and superior shot suppression also mean when opponents are playing with the puck, it’s Cole who is most able to defend.
It would be easy to speculate about off-ice dynamics or demands. I can tell you–Ian Cole is one of the most open and forthright players in the locker room. If there was an unsolvable rift between he and the coaching staff, it likely would have been difficult to hide.
Cole, a free agent after this season, clearly was last in line for a payday. The Penguins dished full value to Dumoulin and are also paying Maatta a healthy sum, over $4 million. Paying both Maatta and Dumoulin over $4 million has squeezed the Penguins salary cap, but not delivered commensurate results.
Lowly paid Chad Ruhwedel at $650,00 is outperforming both. Unfortunately, Ruhwedel is slight. At 5′-11″ and 191 pounds, he was solid in the playoffs, but not necessarily able to eat big minutes or avoid being physically overmatched. At 27 years-old, his play has improved further this year, and he is easily one of the Penguins better defenders.
Unfortunately, so is Ian Cole.
It’s a big moment for the Penguins. They do not possess many trade chips. Whether it was forced upon them or their own choosing, now is their opportunity to fill a need. A bottom-6 winger who can score? A third line center? (Once Riley Sheahan stops playing with Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel, his offensive statistics will again plunge).
There are several teams looking for defensemen. Looking hard.
The Penguins would have been better served quietly making one of their more highly paid commodities available. On reputation, contract certainty and potential, Dumoulin and Maatta could fetch a similar or greater return than Cole but also grant General Manager Jim Rutherford more cap space.
Curious moments. If and when the Penguins deal Ian Cole, unless the return is significant, it will be a mistake.