We Need to Talk About Ian by @SpinMeWrite
When defenseman Ian Cole was benched in January, you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from Penguins fans everywhere. Cole, who was re-signed by the Pens to a three-year deal in July, had been struggling for much of the first few months of the season. (Although to be fair, a lot of guys were struggling under former head coach Mike Johnston.) After being admired for his skating ability and physical defensive style, Cole had a minus-17 rating when he was benched in favor of Derrick Pouliot, who had just been recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
After being a healthy scratch for a month, Cole rejoined the lineup after Ben Lovejoy was injured on Feb. 20 against Tampa Bay. Since his return, Cole has elevated his game and the improvements are noticeable. He makes smart decisions with the puck and has been an excellent shot blocker who protects his goalie.
Let me put it this way. I no longer cringe when I see him on the ice.
“I don’t think there was anything like, ‘Oh my God, you need to overhaul your entire game,’ ” [Cole] said. “I wasn’t really told, ‘This is a huge thing that you need to change.’"
“It was just more, ‘We want to see some guys play and really want you to refine your game and come back and play a certain way, a very in-your-face, physical game and make it really tough to play against [you].’ ”
Since his return, the Pens coaching staff and organization couldn't be more pleased with his play. After last night's victory against the Carolina Hurricanes, Coach Mike Sullivan had nothing but praise for Cole.
"What I like, what he's done most recently is he's playing with aggression and he's harder to play against in front of our net...He's harder on pucks and that's what we want him to bring to our defense corps. We want him to be a defense guy first."
"I think he's done a much better job just playing with that edge and that determination and that conviction. Making sure that if our goalie makes the save, he establishes that body position so they don't get a rebound or he's tying up a stick so they don't get a deflection. Those details of the game are so critically important...I think he's done a much better job of that as of late."
Cole has been paired with Justin Schultz, acquired from the Edmonton Oilers before the trade deadline, leaving Pouliot as the odd man out. Many have been surprised by the decision to scratch Pouliot, but the Pens organization has made it clear that they are not unhappy with the way Pouliot has played. They just wanted to give some guys, like Schultz, some looks.
This is where things get dicey.
Many thought Schultz would need some development before becoming a permanent fixture in the Pens lineup. A new team and new blood has been very good for him and he's exceeded the Pens' expectations. His offensive-style play has melded with Cole's hard-hitting defensive style.
With Lovejoy close to returning from injury, who's in the lineup?
It would be unfair to punish Lovejoy for his injury and sit him, especially when he had been playing solid, reliable defense when he went out. (In addition to Cole, fans had been also calling for his head a few months ago.) Pouliot has been coming along nicely and played well when he was paired with Lovejoy.
I think it makes more sense to stay with Cole-Schultz until they prove otherwise. While Pouliot-Lovejoy have been solid on defense, Cole-Schultz are contributing more and making plays happen. Cole has been one of the Three Stars of the Game a couple times this past month. And with the Pens being a smaller team, they need a big-bodied defenseman like Cole. Don't take guys out who are hot. While Pouliot-Lovejoy haven't done anything wrong, Cole-Schultz have been doing everything right. Cole deserves his place in the lineup.
I admit. I'm drinking the Cole-Aid.
I don't think you can go wrong with either pairing. Just a couple months ago, it looked like we were going to have to dig deep into Wilkes-Barre for defensemen. As Sullivan has said, these tough decisions are good problems to have.