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Skin in the Game: Are the Penguins Tough enough without Cole?

Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby during a game against the New York Islanders by Michael Miller is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Skin in the Game: Are the Penguins Tough enough without Cole?

Estimated Reading Time: 4 Minutes

Does defense really win championships? You know, blocking shots, shutting people down, putting everything on the line, and being downright hard to play against. Is it possible to be the best without those things? Well, the way the Pittsburgh Penguins season is winding down, they seem interested in testing the theory out.

As the NHL regular season winds down, among the playoff storylines will be whether the Birds of the Burgh, champions of the last two Stanley Cups, will be able to win it all three years in a row. But whatever you think of the Pens firepower, most folks will agree that, in order to be a champion, you have to be willing to defend with everything you have, including your body. This is something the Penguins of the last two years were willing to do, and the Penguins of this year, frankly, are not.

By head coach Mike Sullivan’s own admission, players are not getting into shooting lanes nearly enough. The team have averaged over 30 shots against per game since the trade deadline. Aside from a stout defensive fluke on March 11th against the Dallas Stars, they aren’t doing whatever it takes to keep the puck out of their net. Not blocking shots, not taking hits to make plays. And it’s resulting in a lot of pucks going in their net.

Why is this happening? If you ask me, it’s because they traded away the man who made it cool to put your body on the line.

Ian Cole.

Cole made his money as a Penguin doing the bloody dirty work. His 194 blocked shots in 16-17 were the most ever by a Penguin. That’s a lot of rubber being absorbed by one man’s body not wearing goalie equipment. And now he’s gone.

The Penguins sent the grisly red-haired D-man packing in a blockbuster trade to get Derrick Brassard a month ago, and the Penguins haven’t been the same since.

It may seem like a minor move, but losing Cole meant more than having to replace a penalty killer and a third pair defenseman. It meant they had to replace one of the rarest kinds of leaders. Someone setting the standard for skin in the game. Or in Cole’s case, teeth.

Just take a look here as Cole blocks a Roman Josi shot with his face, losing all of his front teeth in the process.

This was less than a week into the season. AND Cole missed only three games. I dare you to tell me seeing your teammate do that doesn’t make you want to repay that effort.

For those of you who love TED talks, there’s a great one on leadership.

In it, management theorist Simon Sinek says “We call them leaders because they will choose to sacrifice so that their people may gain. And when [they] do, the natural response is that their people will sacrifice for [them]. They will give their blood and sweat and tears. And when we ask them ‘why would you do that, why would you give your blood and sweat and tears?’ they all say the same thing: ‘because they would have done it for me.’”

Why jump in front of a shot for your teammate? My teammate would’ve done it for me. Why take a cross check to the neck clearing your teammate’s crease? My teammate would’ve done it for me. Why break your hand, arm, leg, face, body so your teammates can win? My teammates would do it for me.

The Penguins D-men of last year exemplified that. Ron Hainsey, Trever Daley, and Ian Cole made up half of that group of Stanley Cup Champs’ blue line. They set a standard of physical sacrifice that was contagious to the rest of the team. Each made their mark game after game blocking shots and taking punishment to pull out wins in games the Penguins frankly should have lost. They did it in every series, all the way through their 2-0 Cup-raising game 6 wins in Nashville. And with the departure of Cole at the trade deadline, all three are now gone.

This isn’t to say the Penguins have no leadership. Sidney Crosby exemplifies leading by example in a lot of areas. It’s said the Penguins captain elevates everyone around him by setting the standard for work ethic, back-checking, communication, determination, and skill. As a result, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Penguin player lacking any of these qualities, or at least the effort to achieve them. But Sidney Crosby is the star of the team. He cannot set the standard of putting his body in harm’s way. He should not. Fair or unfair, they need his body intact. The standard for physical sacrifice must be carried by someone else, and right now, no one else seems up to the challenge. No seems willing to bleed to win.

If that trend continues, the Penguins chance for a three-peat may be over before it even starts, no matter how many goals they put in the other team’s net. Without the example set by another leader like Ian Cole, no one will be going the extra mile to keep the puck out of the net of their own.

Michael is a Pittsburgh ex-pat living in NYC as a working bartender and semi working actor. He enjoys long walks down the Strip District, thinks yinz should go dawntawn 'inat, and knows that when you play Pittsburgh you play the whole city. But he's unbiased. I swear. Michael writes mostly hockey and football op eds for the Turf, but maybe soon he'll try his hand at covering horse racing or hot dog eating. Who knows. The sky's the limit.

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