Beyond an increase in penalty calls, you might chalk up some of the climbing scoring stats in the NHL to teams observing the Pittsburgh Penguins’ formula for success.
Granted, a huge part of it is “employ Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.” Even so, the Penguins were struggling at times before Mike Sullivan took over as head coach and, essentially, decided to throw caution to the wind.
Long story short, the argument goes that the Penguins decided to “outscore their problems,” with said problems being placed mostly on the shoulders of their defensemen. As you’ve likely heard hundreds of times by now, their second run came with no Kris Letang during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Still, you do need some capable defensemen, and the Penguins surely can’t feel too cocky right now, what with a -17 goal differential heading into Monday’s action. Despite such worries, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey provides an intriguing update: blueliner Ian Cole has been a regular healthy scratch, in part, because the Penguins are actively trying to trade him.
Mackey provides some more background on the situation, noting that it’s unclear if a trade is imminent:
It does not appear the desire to trade Cole has anything to do with his play. It’s more a function of him being an attractive option to other teams, and, according to a source, interest in him has already been several teams deep.
Note: The report has been backed up by multiple reporters after Mackey first broke the news.
One key element is that Cole, 28, will see his $2.1 million cap hit expire after 2017-18. Like virtually every other regular contender during the era of the salary cap, the Penguins often need to let valuable supporting cast members leave, and it sounds like Cole would leave their price range. Mackey reports that the Penguins want to get something for him now rather than allowing him to leave for nothing via unrestricted free agency.
Mackey believes that Pittsburgh seeks a scoring boost, and considering how defensemen are held at a premium in the NHL, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a depth piece.
A solid piece amid a struggling group
That said, allow me to wonder if this is really the best idea for the Penguins.
As defending repeat champions, the Penguins shouldn’t be shy about leaning a bit more toward the present than the future, although it still must be a balancing act. By just about any measure, Cole has been a valuable piece for a defense corps that doesn’t look positioned to handle the loss of helpful pieces.
Cole is an experienced defenseman who grades out as a second-pairing guy, as you can see from his HERO chart, via Dom Galimini:
Really, the Penguins might be better off looking for cheaper ways to improve their scoring depth.
Keeping the window open
When they made a move to acquire Riley Sheahan, they gave up a pick, and that might be the best course of action. The trade deadline would be an obvious time to do this, yet if the Penguins want to be more proactive, they could probably land something earlier as well. Beyond that, it never hurts to keep an eye on the waiver wire.
Look, no GM wants to see a useful player leave without any sort of return, but you can also sacrifice a viable option at the altar of “cost certainty.” The Blackhawks were worried about eventually losing Niklas Hjalmarsson, but Stan Bowman probably wishes he actually procrastinated rather than settling for a middling defenseman in Connor Murphy.
Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel are all 30. Evgeni Malkin is 31. Sports teams sometimes see their windows slam shut with cruel speed, so the Penguins would be wise to think long and hard about how moving Cole for something might hurt their chances this season.
This isn’t to say that Cole is a make-or-break player, but you never know how many pieces you can remove from the puzzle before the Jenga tower collapses.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.