As the Pittsburgh Penguins’ offseason, having been underway for nearly two months now, marches steadily along, a litany of the team’s potential free agents are being sorted through carefully. For folks like Craig Adams, Paul Martin, and Christian Ehrhoff, the news has already trickled down that they will not be returning (though there have been some questions has to the validity of these reports). But as general manager Jim Rutherford has assessed the remaining candidates for new contracts, one has stood out as significant priority: Ian Cole.
Acquired in a trade deadline deal with the St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh swapped the intimidatingly big Robert Bortuzzo, who stands at 6-foot-4, for the more slight, but swift defenseman Ian Cole, who is 6-foot-1. Large and physical benefited the Blues while possession-orientated and quick helped the Penguins. But to fans of both teams, the deal largely appeared to be a wash. But because Bortuzzo was cheaper and packaged with a seventh round draft pick in 2016, it initially appeared that the Blues had come out on top.
Cole proves his worth
The former first round pick out of Notre Dame quickly showed that he was an astonishing steal for the Penguins. An initial comparison of the HERO charts of both Cole and Bortuzzo reveals that Cole, for just $250,000 more, provides top-four caliber play while Bortuzzo typically clocked in as a bottom pairing defenseman.
Diving even further into the advanced statistics for the previous season reveals a startling disparity in the play of the two players. A look at the CorsiAgainst per 60 minutes of ice time (CA60) for defensemen during five-on-five situations shows that Cole was twentieth in the league and first on the Penguins. His 47.69 CA/60 was good enough to best the likes of Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (49.32 CA/60) and the Chicago Blackhawks’ blueliner and undeniable Conn Smythe candidate, Duncan Keith (51.64 CA/60).
Bortuzzo, admittedly, was not far behind Cole at 47.87 CA/60. However, for his career versus teammates and opposition, his CorsiAgainst and FenwickAgainst per 60 minutes of ice time, as well as his CorsiFor and FenwickFor per 60 minutes, both lag far behind that of Cole.
Furthermore, when looking at the players’ surface level statistics, Cole stands above Bortuzzo as well. Scoring five goals and 12 assists for a total of 17 points nearly gave Cole a double-digit advantage over Bortuzzo, who could only muster three goals and five assists for eight points on the season. Additionally, Cole’s 51 penalty minutes are more than two periods fewer than Bortuzzo’s 93.
Come playoff time, Cole was tremendous bright spot for a struggling Penguins squad, as he helped steady an injury-rattled defense. He averaged 23 minutes of ice time a game and tallied two assists en route to getting his play noticed by the press, fans, coaches, and team management. Bortuzzo, meanwhile, was a healthy scratch and received no ice time during his team’s six game series defeat to the Minnesota Wild.
Now what is he worth?
Josh Yohe reportedly recently for DKOnPittsburghSports.com that contract negotiations had officially begun between Cole, a restricted free agent, and the Penguins. Cole intimated his desire to stay in Pittsburgh and head coach Mike Johnston apparently wants the same, as he has marveled over the surprising play of the trade deadline steal.
“Man,” Johnston told Yohe. “This guy Ian Cole, he’s a good player. I didn’t realize we were getting that good of a player.”
So, with all of that praise and his ever-improving play, what sort of qualifying offer should Cole expect the Penguins to extend his way? Per the rules of restricted free agency, the Penguins will be required to, at minimum, offer Cole 105 percent of his previous salary, which was $900,000. This would make the smallest potential offer worth $945,000 and one year. Because Cole is only 26 and has not yet logged seven year of NHL service, the Penguins will have to wait until next offseason to offer him a more sizable deal as an unrestricted free agent..
Given that Cole has expressed his interest in playing for Pittsburgh, which makes sense considering the success he had and the meshing of his play style with the team’s, it would be hard to imagine that he would demand a more substantial pay bump until the Penguins could re-sign him the following season.
This also offers the Penguins an out. If Cole struggles mightily or is injured, the team will always have the option to walk away from him after the season is over. If he builds upon the success of his 2014-2015 season, they will have a previously-undervalued defenseman who has publicly stated how much he wants to play for their team. It seems to be a win-win.
The Penguins have a lot on their plate this offseason, but re-signing Ian Cole should be a task they facilitate as soon as possible.