After moving Ryan McDonagh in a trade to the Nashville Predators, the Lightning left themselves a hole on the left side of the defense. The Lightning received Philippe Myers in the trade, but he is a right-handed defenseman to go along with Erik Cernak, Zach Bogosian, and Cal Foote who are already under contract. Julien BriseBois in his early offseason comments said that the team was working on bringing back Jan Rutta, but with a deal not getting done before free agency opening, it appeared likely he would head to market. And again, Rutta is a right-handed defenseman, so re-signing him also would necessitate moving one of the other right handed defenseman on the roster.
Shortly after the opening bell of NHL free agency, it was reported that the Lightning had signed left-handed defenseman Ian Cole to a one-year contract with a $3 million cap hit.
Cole is 33 years-old and listed at 6’1” and 225 pounds. He was originally first round pick, 18th overall by the St. Louis Blues in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. He played NCAA hockey for the University of Notre Dame before turning pro and has appeared in the NHL for the Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, and most recently the Carolina Hurricanes.
Last season, Cole put up two goals and 19 points in 75 regular season games for the Canes and added a goal and an assist in 14 playoff games. Cole has never been a top pairing guy in the NHL, mostly playing around 17-18 minutes a night throughout his NHL career. Last season with the Hurricanes, he averaged 17:09. He doesn’t get much power play time, and has only recorded six power play points, all assists, in his career. He does bring a decent amount of offense though at even strength, mostly in the form of assists.
Cole provides the Lightning with the kind of depth they needed on the left side after McDonagh’s departure. He has the capacity to step up and play bigger minutes if needed on the second pair in the event of an injury to Victor Hedman or Mikhail Sergachev, but will be well suited to playing on the third pair throughout the season. I would expect he’ll likely be paired up with one of Cal Foote, Zach Bogosian, or Philippe Myers, or even all three throughout the year, depending on who goes with Hedman on the first pair and who plays on any given night.
So exactly what kind of player did the Lightning get here? While he has had a penchant for putting up points, his offense and his play driving has declined from what they were in his prime years. His defensive skills though have remained strong and he’s a strong contributor on the penalty kill, which is also important with McDonagh having been the Lightning’s main left-handed defenseman on the penalty kill for years now. The big negative in Cole’s game though is that he takes too many penalties, which has been the motto for the Lightning team for years as well. Don’t be surprised if you’re getting made at him pretty regularly for taking a penalty and putting the team down a man.
Evolving-Hockey.com’s projection for Ian Cole was a two-year term with a $2.6 million cap hit. The Lightning paid a little bit more for Cole’s services than projections. While I was looking around at the UFA market for left-handed defensemen that fit what the Lightning needed, it felt like the market was a little thin and there weren’t many choices that made me particularly excited. The problem was either that the player wasn’t all that good or the player was too good and would require bigger money and term. By signing Cole to just a one-year contract, Julien BriseBois hasn’t handcuffed himself next offseason when the RFA contracts for Anthony Cirelli, Sergachev, Erik Cernak, Ross Colton, and Cal Foote come up.
Before signing Cole, the Lightning had about $6.6 million in cap space to work with with 11 forwards, six defensemen, and two goaltenders under contract. The Lightning have a need to fill in two forwards and one defenseman to have a comfortable roster. The NHL minimum salary this season is $750,000 so that amount has to be taken into account as well for how much money the Lightning actually have to spend, and also a little bit of buffer room above that as well if they choose to fill in the spot with one of the already signed younger players like Alex Barre-Boulet, Cole Koepke, or Gabriel Fortier up front.
After signing Cole, the Lightning now have $3.6 million to spend. If one of those forward spots is filled by one of the young players, then the team can still add another third line type forward for around $2.8 million without having to move any other money. There’s also still the option of moving Myers even though they just acquired him to get another couple million in cap space to play with.
The Lightning likely aren’t done in Free Agency and we’ll have to wait to see what else pops up for the team.
We will update the story once it becomes official.