Ian Cole took a puck to the mouth on Saturday against the Nashville Predators. Viewers of the game could actually see his teeth flying in the slow-mo replays. There’s a reason they call hockey the beautiful game.
Cole lost a few teeth and, as he said in a terrifyingly casual statement, “some jaw”. He has since been placed on the injured reserve list and with no timetable for his return.
The Penguins are used to dealing with a depleted defensive corps — in the second half of the 2016-17 season, they often took the ice with a defensive roster comprised of more AHL players rather than NHL regulars. How will the loss of Cole affect them now?
Cole isn’t one of the defenders the Penguins lean on most at 5-on-5 or on the man advantage. Kris Letang, despite his very recent return from injury, still shoulders the brunt of the Penguins’ ice time while Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz are the other pillars of the Penguins’ defense. Minus his third game, which was cut short by the injury, Cole was averaging about 18 minutes per match, similar to the rest of the bottom half of the Penguins’ D (comprised of Olli Maatta and Matt Hunwick).
There’s one area where the Penguins lean heavily on Cole, however, and that’s on the penalty kill. He was one of the Penguins’ most regularly used penalty killers in 2016-17, and he remains key to the kill in 2017-18. He served as one of the team’s most tenacious shot-blockers at a time when they were scrambling to put together a cohesive lineup.
This season, although his time on the ice during 5-on-5 play is average for a defenseman, his time on the ice during the penalty kill was one of the highest on the team at over three minutes per night.
Cole and the Penguins’ Penalty Kill
The Penguins have been remarkably good on the penalty kill for the first few games of the 2017-18 season, even when their 5-on-5 play has been abysmal. During their 10-1 blowout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, the Pens managed to kill 6 of 6 Blackhawks power plays. In a league where slashes are now being called more frequently by referees, it’s going to be crucial for the team to be good on the PK, and that’s where the loss of Cole really stings.
It’s almost inevitable that, in Cole’s absence, Letang will see an increased role on the PK, again assuming his position as a vital part of every possible formation on the team, from 5-on-5 to 3-on-3 to shorthanded situations to the man-advantage. But Letang just returned from a devastating health issue, and he’s already playing the most minutes of anyone on the team.
Perhaps the biggest issue with Cole’s injury is placing more responsibility and ice time on someone who’s already one of the most crucial pieces to the team and has a very, very long history of injuries. The Penguins surely don’t want a battered Letang assuming the role of shot-blocking on the penalty kill in Cole’s absence.
For the sake of Letang and the penalty kill, the Penguins will want Cole to be back on the ice as soon as possible.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.