With Justin Schultz injured again, the importance for defensive depth is once again on display for the Penguins. Consequently, the trade talks involving Ian Cole have subsided for the time being. Trade rumors have been prevalent for the past few weeks and reached a pinnacle when Cole sat out three consecutive games as a healthy scratch. Since sitting out the games on November 24th, 25th, and 27th, Cole has played in four consecutive games, posting a -1 rating, blocking nine shots, picking up 1 assist, and taking one minor penalty.
Ironically, it was a trade that landed Cole in Pittsburgh in 2015 when he was traded from St. Louis in exchange for defenseman Robert Bortuzzo and a seventh round pick. He’s currently in the last season of a three-year contract that pays him $2.1 million per season. Since he arrived in Pittsburgh he has amassed seven goals and 43 assists in the regular season, as well as one goal and 13 assists in the playoffs. While Cole ?s offensive prowess has certainly improved since becoming a Penguin, his best attributes are on the defensive side of the puck, where, in his time with Pittsburgh, he has recorded 395 blocked shots in the regular season and added another 128 blocked shots in post-season play. His 194 blocked shots last season ranked third in the NHL.
Looking down the depth chart for the Penguins, the defenseman that slid into the lineup when Cole was a healthy scratch was Chad Ruhwedel. The 27-year old defenseman is actually only a year younger than Cole and has been up and down between the AHL and the NHL since breaking in with the Sabres during the 2012-13 season. He has never played more than 34 games in an NHL season and cannot realistically be considered as a viable replacement if Cole were to be traded.
The perplexing part of these trade rumors is that Cole is the only player of his type on the team. He is the only stay-at-home, physical defenseman that the Penguins have on their roster. This being said, one would think if the Penguins traded him away that they would want to get a similar type of defenseman in return, which begs the question — why trade him? Another item that makes the trade rumors curious is that Cole is one of the Penguins ? best penalty killers. With the departures of Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen, amongst others, the Penguins penalty kill has suffered this season; they are currently ranked 21st in the league.
Perhaps there is no grand plan to trade Cole and head coach Mike Sullivan was merely trying to motivate him by having him observe from the press box for a few games. Remember, this is not the first time Sullivan has healthy-scratched Cole for an extended period. Cole was a healthy scratch for 12-consecutive games from January 23, 2016-February 21, 2016. Further, the only reason he got into the game on February 21 was because Ben Lovejoy was injured. However, from then on he was a regular in the lineup and performed admirably, especially in the post-season en route to a Stanley Cup Championship. Therefore, one could argue that Sullivan ?s strategy has worked with Cole in the past. There have been whispers in the past that Sullivan does not care for Cole’s personality, as Cole has been quite forthcoming at times in the media.
Rutherford has shown that going out and getting something in exchange for a player that is not likely to be re-signed is not a top priority. Case in point, last season it was apparent that Bonino, Trevor Daley, and Chris Kunitz were not going to be re-signed at season ?s end. However, Rutherford believed that they were key pieces to another run at a championship and did not move them. Nobody is going to argue that Cole is as an important piece to a third-consecutive Stanley Cup as Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but he is certainly a player with a skillset that is not currently replicated on the Penguins and that is something important to consider before fans or the front office look to trade Cole away.