With Daley ailing, Penguins defenseman Cole waits for his chance

Bill West
| Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, 5:57 p.m.

Whatever expectations Penguins defenseman Ian Cole and coach Mike Sullivan discussed in private meetings during the past few weeks were alluded to but went unsaid by both after the team's off-ice training session Thursday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.

Cole, a healthy scratch in the Penguins' past seven games, might get to meet some of his coach's demands on the ice Friday at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.

Defenseman Trevor Daley, who left in the first period of Wednesday's loss to the New York Rangers with an unspecified upper-body injury and did not return, underwent evaluation Thursday and was deemed a game-time decision by Sullivan for Friday's matchup with the Hurricanes. If Daley cannot play — Sullivan said only that “anything significant has been ruled out” — Cole will land back in the lineup after serving as the odd man out since Derrick Pouliot's call-up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

“We've tried to define clear expectations and what we expect or how we think each one of our players can help us win by playing to their strengths,” Sullivan said. “We feel as though we've got seven or eight defensemen that we think can help us win. We utilize each and every one of those guys, and Ian is one of those guys.

“He's played some good hockey for us. He's been a good soldier as far as preparing himself to be ready for when the time comes.”

Cole, acquired in a trade that sent Robert Bortuzzo to St. Louis in March, embraced life as a regular in the Penguins lineup this season after years of modest opportunity with the Blues. He appeared in 45 games and averaged a career-high 17 minutes, 55 seconds of ice time.

But not long after Pouliot arrived Jan. 18, Cole's string of healthy scratches began. His limited offensive production (no goals, four assists) and his poor possession numbers made him an apparent choice as the team's seventh defenseman. Pouliot's steady play only increased the likelihood of Cole, who will turn 27 on Feb. 21, remaining out of the lineup.

“(I'm) just working hard at practice and trying to stay as sharp as you can,” Cole said. “(You're) making sure that when you are in those game situations, if we're doing five-on-five in the zone in practice or whatever, that you are thinking about it like a game because that's really the only somewhat close situation you're going to be in.”

Then came Wednesday night, when Daley became tangled with the Rangers' Jesper Fast, lost his footing and crashed into the Penguins' net.

“He's come in and been great for us,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy said of Daley. “If he's out, we will absolutely miss him. We feel comfortable defensively that we have plenty of depth.”

Jokingly, he added: “I think Kris Letang can absorb a few more minutes and maybe play 45 to 50.”

Daley, acquired Dec. 14 in a trade with Chicago, has eased the burden on Letang to generate offense. He's a natural fit in the up-tempo system established under Sullivan.

Cole likely cannot match what Daley provides — Pouliot is a better bet to fill that role on a short-term basis. But Cole, whose $2.1 million cap hit is second only to Letang among the Penguins' defensemen, waits for the opportunity to show that he's wise enough to recognize his coach's requests and adapt in a way that makes him worthy of more ice time.

“There obviously has been a lot of things that you try to tweak and reassess,” Cole said. “There were some conversations that were had (with Sullivan). Obviously need to put that into play in a game situation. We'll see how it is going forward.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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