Jim Rutherford and the Pittsburgh Penguins made a choice this past summer to focus on adding offensive depth, while relying on a very young and unproven defensive group. That meant an increased role for Ian Cole, acquired at the 2015 trade deadline in exchange for Robert Bortuzzo. Considering Cole’s performance down the stretch last season, that seemed like something that could work out perfectly for the Penguins. However, the result has been anything but ideal and Cole has struggled mightily.
Of course, Cole isn’t the only underperforming defenseman on the Penguins’ blue line. Derrick Pouliot, recently recalled from the Penguins’ AHL affiliate, played his way into the AHL with a poor showing in this past summer’s training camp. Ben Lovejoy continues to struggle as well but in the case of Lovejoy, we know what to expect from him at this point. Cole is a different story. He showed glimpses of living up to his first-round pedigree last season, especially after being launched into an increased role following Kris Letang’s season-ending concussion. He was one of the more stable blue-liners through the final two months of 2014-15 with all things indicating that he had finally found a good fit in Pittsburgh.
Rutherford banked on that glimpse of what Cole is capable of and signed the 26-year old to a three-year contract worth $2.1 million annually. A fair price for someone who can play multiple roles within a defensive corps that would require versatility. While some will criticize Rutherford for that contract, this is a clear case of hindsight being 20/20, as no one minded the deal after watching him play last spring. Now, the Penguins are stuck trying to find an answer to what’s impacting his play so greatly.
Ian Cole’s 180 From Season-to-Season
Cole was a bit of an enigma when he arrived in Pittsburgh last season. The trade was a surprise and most were left wondering what he could bring to an already solid blue line that boasted the likes of Paul Martin, Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff. His impact, which I covered at PensLabyrinth.Com, was far better than anyone had anticipated. However, you’ll see from the following comparison chart courtesy of ownthepuck.blogspot.ca, there’s a vast difference between the Ian Cole of 2015 and the current version taking the ice each night.
What you’re seeing is an increase in role, evident by his time-on-ice percentage nearing that of top-four standards, combined with a severe drop in both shot suppression and the ability to generate offense with him on the ice. And, at least for me, watching the drop-off has been quite frustrating, as I personally viewed Cole has someone who could assume a similar role to what Matt Niskanen provided Pittsburgh prior to departing. So far, that clearly isn’t the case. His impact, or lack thereof, is also felt by his most common line mates. Below are the top-five skaters in time-on-ice with Cole. (Click to enlarge, stats via stats.hockeyanalysis.com)
The same trend continues as you go further down the list, with Cole’s current defensive partner Trevor Daley included. Each individual sees a drastic decrease in Corsi-for percentage, or in other words, percentage of total shot-attempts while sharing the ice with Cole. From a scoring perspective, you can see the decrease in goals-for per 60 minutes and the increase in goals-against. It’s disheartening and very concerning to say the least. So, the biggest question of course is why Cole has suffered such a drop-off and if it’s something that can be remedied. Is the remedy simply putting him in the press box?
Both Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan have stated recently that when Derrick Pouliot is recalled from the AHL, he’s here to stay. The biggest knock on Pouliot and the main reason for his demotion has been his play on the defensive side of the puck and according to those that have worked with him this season, he’s showing a lot of improvement in that regard. [pull_quote_right author=””]He’s grasped (Mike Sullivan’s) system, the way that we want to defend, and the difference is really night and day. – Jay Leach on Derrick Pouliot, courtesy of citizensvoice.com[/pull_quote_right]
Jay Leach, Associate Head Coach for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, told citizensvoice.com that Pouliot has come a long way in his time developing with the WBS Penguins this season. According to Leach, Pouliot now has a strong base and when he gets into the lineup at the NHL level, he’s going to defend. He also noted that his improvement has been really noticeable over the past month. If Pouliot does indeed show that type of improvement with the big club, the Penguins have a decision to make on either Ian Cole or Lovejoy. And, surprisingly, the decision isn’t as easy as one would think.
While Cole should be the superior talent and a better bet to remain in the lineup, there’s something to be said about Lovejoy’s ability to mesh with youngster Brian Dumoulin. Do I think that most of that duos success has stemmed from Dumoulin himself? Yes. But, considering Cole’s inability to find a fit with any specific defensive partner and his negative impact on everyone he has played with this season, Lovejoy just might be the safer bet at the moment.
The best answer is to add someone prior to the trade deadline, which occurs on February 29 this season. Doing so will be tough, as the Penguins don’t have a lot of attractive assets and they have cap concerns to think about but if they truly see themselves as a capable contender, Rutherford needs to find a way. The Penguins are much improved under Sullivan’s tutelage but continue to let precious points slip away from them. Ian Cole needs to be better and in turn, this defensive group will improve. If not, it may be time for him to observe while Pouliot gets a shot.