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Penguins

Penguins' success benefits Ian Cole at trade deadline

Jonathan Bombulie
| Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, 6:49 p.m.
Penguins defenseman Ian Cole plays against the Golden Knights Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Ian Cole plays against the Golden Knights Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins' Ian Cole defends on the Senators' Thomas Chabot in the second period Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Ian Cole defends on the Senators' Thomas Chabot in the second period Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.

If things had broken differently this season, defenseman Ian Cole might have spent this week on pins and needles, wondering which jersey he would be wearing for his next game.

He's still not breathing easy. With general manager Jim Rutherford's stated intention of doing whatever he can to improve his roster, there are only a couple of players in the team's locker room who truly can be guaranteed they won't be on the move before Monday's NHL trade deadline.

“The trade deadline is always a nervous time, no matter where you are, except maybe for (Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin) or somebody,” Cole said after practice Tuesday. “For the rest of us, it's always a nervous time. It's every single year, regardless of what your contract situation is.”

Still, the likelihood of Cole being moved has plummeted from where it stood during tenuous stretches in November and January when he was out of the lineup as a healthy scratch.

He never wanted to leave the teammates he won championships with over the past two seasons, but he also wanted to play. Given that he'll be an unrestricted free agent in July, his financial future depended on breaking out of the press box, and as such, credible trade rumors emerged.

They've quieted quite a bit these days, and Cole is thankful.

“There's nowhere else I would rather play, no team I'd rather play for, no group of guys I'd rather play with,” Cole said.

Defensive depth has become a roster strength for the Penguins as the deadline approaches, so much so that Matt Hunwick has been mentioned as a possible trade chip to open up salary-cap space for further wheeling and dealing.

The Penguins are in that enviable position, in no small part, because of Cole's resurgence.

Since sitting out seven consecutive games as a healthy scratch in January, Cole has a goal, five assists and a plus-12 rating in his last 11 games. When he's been on the ice at even strength, the Penguins have outscored their opponents 15-6.

“The biggest thing I have seen is just that his decision-making with the puck has been more calculated, and I think when Coley's game is simple and smart, it's very effective,” coach Mike Sullivan said.

One stat might best illustrate Cole's effectiveness in recent weeks. Last season, he was first on the team and third in the league with 194 blocked shots. This season, he's second on the team with 91.

It might seem counterintuitive, but that's actually a good thing for Cole.

The way he sees it, there are several choke points where the Penguins defense can stop an opposing scoring chance way before it gets to the blocked-shot stage.

They can disrupt the opponent's breakout. They can have good gaps and shut down plays in the neutral zone. They can have good sticks and break up plays as they cross the offensive blue line.

The fewer times they have to employ the last-resort technique of shot blocking, the better.

“Being able to turn pucks over, which is something I think our D group does very well, and get pucks back to our forwards, that's the ideal scenario,” Cole said. “Not sit back, wait for them to come in and tee off and try to block as many as you can.”

Following that philosophy, the Penguins have scorched their way through the second half of the season, fashioning a 16-4-1 record since Jan. 1.

That's moved them within striking distance of first place in the Metropolitan Division and made a dramatic trade-deadline shake-up far less likely.

“Winning games certainly puts your team in a better position to stay together than losing games. I don't think that's any earth-shattering revelation,” Cole said. “Everyone has a ton of respect for everyone in this room. We obviously want to stay together.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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