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NHL Free Agency 2018: Could Ian Cole help stabilize the Golden Knights’ blue line?

The 29-year-old defenseman has been linked to Vegas in the past.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden Knights were one of the few teams in the NHL with a surprisingly small amount of holes on its roster throughout the year. Vegas finished the 2017-18 regular season having scored a whopping 268 goals (fifth in the league) while goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban proved to be a more than reliable one-two punch in net.

Vegas was quite strong defensively last season as well. Nate Schmidt put together an impressive 36-point campaign while Brayden McNabb made a name for himself as a formidable stay-at-home defender on the Knights’ blue line. Vegas also got considerable production out of Colin Miller (41 points in 82 games), as well as 22-year-old puck-mover Shea Theodore.

Beyond those four defensemen, however, the Knights’ blueline was somewhat of a mixed bag.

While Deryk Engelland is coming off the best statistical season of his career (23 points in 79 games), the 36-year-old blueliner is likely best suited for a role on the Knights’ bottom pair at this stage of his career. Jon Merrill and Brad Hunt were both given extended looks, but neither managed to earn an uncontested place in the lineup, though the Knights did give Merrill a two-year extension back in January.

At this point, it’s become clear that Vegas could use some added depth on the back end. The quantity of adequate defensemen available in free agency is far from inspiring, but there are still a few pending unrestricted free agents who could interest the Knights — one of whom being Ian Cole.

Season in review

Strenghts

At a time where point-producing defensemen are all the rage, shutdown defenders can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Cole, however, remains a useful player even despite his lack of point generation.

Cole is your stereotypical defensive blueliner. He thrives in the defending zone, and his faceoff statistics prove as much (over 40 percent of his zone starts came in his own end of the rink last season). The 29-year-old is a willing shot blocker and is just a year removed from ranking third in the entire league in blocked shots with 194. Because of this, Cole typically receives big minutes on the penalty kill, where he specializes in neutralizing high-danger scoring chances. In 115 minutes of PK time with Pittsburgh last season, Cole clearly made his presence felt in shorthanded situations.

Impressively, Cole managed to make an even larger impact on the Blue Jackets’ penalty kill after being moved at the trade deadline in February.

Cole, 6-foot-1 and 219 pounds, has the prototypical size you like to see out of a stay-at-home defenseman, and his play reflects what his stature signifies — a physical defender capable of winning puck battles and clearing the low slot to negate scoring chances.

Weaknesses

Cole’s prowess in the defensive zone is nothing to sneeze at, but his offensive game leaves much to be desired, whether it be in the area of raw point production or play-driving. In 47 games with the Penguins, Cole typically did a good job of driving play (51.09 Corsi For percentage at 5v5). In Columbus, his play-driving numbers were even better with a 52.55 CF% at 5v5. However, a deeper look at the numbers suggests that Cole may actually be somewhat of an anchor to his defensive partners.

Cole spent a large portion of his time with David Savard after being moved to Columbus. When the two were together in the postseason, the duo managed a sound 55.87 CF% at 5v5. When separated, though, it became clear that Cole’s play-driving numbers were being inflated by Savard’s presence. Cole’s 5v5 CF% plummeted to 43.75 while Savard’s skyrocketed all the way up to an astounding 72.73 when the two were away from one another. Granted, the two spent very little time separated, but those figures are still quite telling.

A similar pattern occurred during the 2016-17 postseason. Cole spent over 46 minutes with Pittsburgh defenseman Chad Ruhwedel during the Pens’ Stanley Cup run. When together, the Cole-Ruhwedel pairing logged an above average 51.81 CF% at 5v5. But when the two were away from one another, Cole’s 5v5 CF% dropped to 43.48 while Ruhwedel’s bumped up to 60.00.

Cole certainly isn’t “bad” offensively, but it’s clear that his best work comes in the neutral and defensive zones.

Fit with the Golden Knights

With Colin Miller and Shea Theodore (the Knights’ two best offensive defensemen) likely to return next season, Cole would ideally find a home next to one of the crafty point producers. Cole would also earn an immediate role on Vegas’ top penalty-killing unit.

The Ann Arbor native would be a clear fit in Vegas, but are the Golden Knights even interested? Based on past reports, there’s no reason to think otherwise. Cole was linked to Vegas back in November and it’s possible the team could revisit the prospect of signing him, especially if they fail to make a move for Erik Karlsson this summer.

All statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.