There is no doubting that the combination of Ollia Maatta and Kris Letang – if both remain healthy – could easily become one of the best pairings in all of hockey, but if the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to find success this year it is going to come by the hands of another defender.
Question the rest of the moves Jim Rutherford has made in his time as the Penguins’ General Manager, but the one you can’t is him acquiring Ian Cole from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Robert Bortuzzo and a seventh round pick in the 2016 NFL draft. Bortuzzo, a very serviceable 6th/7th defenseman, spent his entire career with the Penguins bouncing in-and-out the lineup but Cole now has the opportunity to be an impact player for Pittsburgh, and holds the key with just how successful their unit can be this season.
Ian Cole Holds Will Serve As Bridge On Pens Blue Line
A former first round pick by the Blues, Cole has struggled to find a place in their lineup, but a change of scenery – and system – allowed the 26 year old former Notre Dame Fighting Irish to flourish with his new team.
Standing at 6’1”, and weighing close to 220 pounds, Cole is an imposing figure on the blue line yet has the skating ability needed to excel in Mike Johnston’s system. He showed it down the stretch with the Penguins, becoming one of their better defensemen while his new team were decimated with injuries.
Playing in 20 games after being traded, Cole quickly became the blue line’s best at driving action the oppositions way as well as suppressing shots on net. Extremely favorable zone start times (in fact, of any Penguins defensemen who played more than ten games down the stretch, Cole started more shifts in the offensive zone than any of them) helped in these numbers but Cole was still noticeably strong in his own end, which will be crucial if he is paired who he is expected to be paired with.
A first round pick in the same class as Maatta, Derrick Pouliot was moved a little slower as his Finish classmate – injuries were likely the only reason he played so much last year in the NHL – but regardless he will likely round out the Penguins top four come October.
With so much money tied up into the forwards, the Penguins were forced to go with more cost-efficient defensively for the upcoming season, meaning players like Pouliot are likely going to be forced into a role they may not be ready for.
Brian Dumoulin, Adam Clendening, Ben Lovejoy, and Rob Scuderi will be names looking to fill out the bottom of the lineup, putting even more pressure at the top – with Cole being the bridge between the two.
Not only will he himself have to play in a role he has yet to play in, he will do so playing with others who haven’t – and have far less experience than he does. Maatta and Letang will undoubtedly be asked to visible do more – log big minutes against opposing teams top players – but Cole may be the most important player on the blue line this season.