The Penguins Ian Cole pursues the puck against John Mitchell of the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It seemed, on paper, like an ideal partnership.
A defenseman who focuses on playing in his own end, but still skates and moves the puck well, deployed alongside one of the game’s elite scoring defensemen.
For the Penguins, combining the talents of Ian Cole and Kris Letang appeared to be a foolproof formula for a productive No. 1 pairing.
At least until ice was added to the mix.
When Cole and Letang actually began playing together earlier this season, the partnership that figured to benefit both didn’t do any favors for either.
Their games never seemed to mesh and, not coincidentally, their plus-minus ratings plunged faster than oil prices.
Now, plus-minus is a simplistic stat that likely has more detractors than supporters, but, when a player finishes with a minus practically every time he reports for work, the trend is tough to ignore.
But if the sour results of the Cole-Letang partnership were impossible to overlook, the reason it failed remains a mystery.
“I don’t really know why it didn’t necessarily work out, because I think we would be a great pair, going forward,” Cole said. “I’m big, I can skate, I’m more defensive-minded but I can still make plays, and he’s obviously an unbelievable offensive defenseman, one of the best in the league.”
Letang’s game was out of sync most of the first two-plus months of the season, but he since has reclaimed his place among the NHL’s premier defensemen.
Cole hasn’t been so fortunate. The only thing he has reclaimed lately is a place in the lineup after sitting out 11 consecutive games as a healthy scratch.
And, while coach Mike Sullivan said Sunday that “we believe in him,” Cole was back in uniform for the Penguins’ 4-3 victory at Buffalo that day only because Ben Lovejoy had been injured in a game 24 hours earlier.
Cole, playing alongside Derrick Pouliot on the No. 3 pairing, played 13 minutes, 48 seconds in Buffalo and was credited with three hits, tying for the team lead.
“I thought it went really well,” Cole said. “There were things I want to clean up, but, for the most part, we really didn’t give them anything and broke out [of the defensive zone] pretty well.”
Although Cole’s plus-minus still looks as if it was plucked out of a Winnipeg weather forecast — he’s a frosty minus-17 — he said he wasn’t given a laundry list of things to work on during his time as a healthy scratch.
“I don’t think there was anything like, ‘Oh my God, you need to overhaul your entire game,’ ” he 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].’ ”
Cole filled that role effectively at even-strength against Buffalo, although he was on the ice for two Sabres power-play goals, and, understandably, hopes that game will be the first step toward re-establishing him as a fixture in the lineup.
He also hopes that someday, he and Letang will get a chance to resurrect the partnership that fared so badly so often a few months back.
“I don’t think it’s something where it’s completely written off,” he said. “ ‘Oh man, this is done. This is toast. This is never going to work.’ We still have the potential to be a great pair together.
“I really do think that if, down the road, we get back together, I think it will go a lot better. Maybe down the road we get together and really run with it.”
NOTE — The Penguins returned goalie Matt Murray to their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre. He was called up Sunday and served as Marc-Andre Fleury’s backup in the 4-3 victory in Buffalo that day. … The Penguins had a scheduled day off Monday.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.
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