The legend of Ian Cole continues to grow.
The former Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman with a bushy red beard is 6 feet 1 inches tall and 219 pounds. In 47 games with the Penguins this season, Cole notched three goals and 10 assists. He blocked 91 shots and dished 69 hits.
Those are only the actual measurements and stats.
Tonight, the Penguins will face the Columbus Blue Jackets and their former teammate who in the past tense has become a giant in many corners of the internet.
Cole was often paired with Justin Schultz for two Stanley Cup runs. This season, Cole was shuffled back and forth from the ice to the press box. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan was unhappy with the defenseman’s lack of offensive push and overall play.
Pittsburgh Hockey Now wrote extensively about the saga and the Penguins need for Cole in the lineup. PHN never wrote that Cole was the lynchpin of a Stanley Cup run and without him, an early playoff exit was likely.
Days after the Penguins dealt Cole to the Ottawa Senators in the three-team deal which sent Derick Brassard to Pittsburgh with 40 percent of his salary covered, the Columbus Blue Jackets acquired Cole from the Senators.
The Blue Jackets amassed a 10-game winning streak which coincided with Cole’s arrival.
Since the February 23 deal to acquire Brassard, the Penguins have stumbled and the Blue Jackets surged into a playoff seed. And, the legend of Ian Cole began.
In his Pittsburgh absence, Cole has become taller, faster, and tougher. After the trade, he became indispensable to the Penguins Stanley Cup hopes.
Cole’s role with the Penguins was a bottom pairing defenseman and penalty killer. But, that limited role hasn’t limited the legend.
Every time Kris Letang or Matt Hunwick is on the ice for a goal, the legend of Ian Cole grows. For every power-play goal allowed, and every shot not blocked, Cole’s stature becomes larger.
Ian Cole Replacement Differential
The Penguins acquired massive defenseman Jamie Oleksiak from Dallas in December, which seemingly made Cole expendable. In fact, Cole is an impending unrestricted free agent who was unlikely to re-sign with the Penguins, per the Penguins choice.
Make no mistake, Oleksiak upgrades the Penguins top four defensemen, but the loss of Cole has weakened the top six.
The Penguins top six defensemen now include Chad Ruhwedel.
Ruhwedel is averaging more hits per game (1.52) and than Ian Cole (1.46). Ruhwedel is also averaging almost the same number of blocked shots (.98) as Cole is averaging with Columbus (1.2), though not more than Cole averaged with the Penguins (1.94).
There just isn’t a question Cole is much better than Ruhwedel. Ruhwedel isn’t as strong as Cole and lacks the same gritty on-ice presence. There is a drop-off, both in contribution and ability. However, Ruhwedel does skate well and have a good first pass. And, consider this advanced stat nugget: Ruhwedel’s Corsi rating, 52.2 percent is nearly two full points better than Cole’s rating with the Penguins. The same goes for Fenwick, which credits the shot blocker, not the shooter.
The drop off of contributions from Cole to Ruhwedel seems significantly less than the Penguins endured last season when they were forced to replace Kris Letang on the top pairing with Ron Hainsey.
If the Penguins can march through the NHL with Hainsey on the top pairing, surely they can win with Ruhwedel in place of Cole.
Brassard was the centerpiece of the trade deadline fun because he is a center with a 60-point pedigree and defensive prowess. His six-game point streak was snapped when he left the March 27 game early with an injury. Brassard floundered with Phil Kessel for weeks but finally found chemistry with Conor Sheary and the second power-play unit.
The injury to Brassard cost the center much-needed adjustment time. Brassard has been open about the difficult transition from Ottawa which abandons the offensive zone like someone pulled the alarm, to the Penguins who swarm the offensive zone like there is a Black Friday doorbuster sale.
Stanley Cup Judgement
If the Penguins do not win the Stanley Cup, the defensive dropoff will unlikely be a factor. There are ways to hide a sixth defenseman, including on the bench. If the Penguins win, the substantial leap forward in talent from Riley Sheahan to Brassard on the Penguins third line will undoubtedly be a factor.
Indeed, the trade brought the Penguins more NHL talent than they lost. Much more.
Cole was a valuable member of two Stanley Cup runs. He is an intense player willing to sacrifice his body for the team and loved by teammates for doing so. Cole’s talents should not be diminished or overlooked.
They should not be exaggerated, either.