The St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes that when the Blues open training camp in September at St. Louis Mills, Ian Cole will be listed among the top seven defensemen on the roster. A cubicle at Scottrade Center will bear his name, await his arrival for the regular schedule, his locker to lose, not win.
Coming to camp for the third time, it will be a new situation for Cole. It comes after numerous trips back and forth between St. Louis and Peoria, trips that include a spread of 53 games in the American Hockey League for the Rivermen and 52 NHL games.
Cole plans to spend much of his summer in South Bend, Ind., training at Notre Dame’s facilities, which recently underwent $60 million in upgrades, including state of the art equipment and two sheets of ice. The goal for Cole is to be a consistent, reliable sort, to do more than maintain top-seven clearance. The goal is to be a foundation piece, like his fellow No. 1s, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk.
“They gave me an idea of where I needed to improve and what I have to work on,” Cole said. “A lot of it has to do with on-ice skills, skating and being able to have the puck always in a passing position, always ready to move the puck or shoot the puck.
“A lot of it is things I worked on with (Brad) Shaw, before practice, after practice, even talking on the plane. I did a lot of extra work with Shawsie. As much as it wasn’t a lot of fun, because he was kicking my butt a lot, I know and Shawsie knows, and the Blues know, it helped me become a better player as the season went on. A lot of it is just little nuances but really important to improving as a hockey player.”
The most important part of the lab work in “The Fundamentals of NHL Defenseman 101″ might be the psychological component. Before an early 20-something can become a trustworthy player in the NHL, he sometimes must come to grips with what kind of player he is.
“My belief with all young players is you get very good in the area you’re supposed to be good in, and then you expand your game from there,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. “I think a young player, to gain a coach’s confidence, has to be reliable in what the coach asks him to do, and then you’re allowed to grow from that.”
As Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has said frequently, the offensive part of the defenseman’s work comes more naturally. Most young players drafted by NHL teams have been puck-moving, puck-rushing defensemen in their youth. But NHL-caliber defensive acumen has to be home-schooled. Pietrangelo is somewhat of a freak in that regard, a polished defender who has further developed his offensive skills at the NHL level.
The recognition lesson is a challenge for Cole in part because of his surroundings. He watches the shifty Shattenkirk score 43 points in each of his first two seasons. He sees Pietrangelo becoming more proficient, scoring 12 goals and 51 points last season. What the heck? Cole is a No. 1, just like them. If them, why not him? It’s natural to make the association, but it’s also detrimental.
“Obviously, everybody wants to be ‘The Guy’ on the team,” Cole acknowledged. “Everybody wants to be what Petro is. But maybe the things I might be better at aren’t the things that most likely make me the fan favorite, or ‘The Guy.’
“So, obviously, it’s definitely more of a under-the-radar role, and that’s fine. I’m totally cool with that. I’m not the kind of guy who needs the attention, or whatever. So I’m coming to that realization and I’m at that point where I realize that, sure, points are important. But being able to be a solid defenseman, being able to be a plus-player — that’s what is going to be a good thing and help the team down the road go far in the playoffs.
“You look at some of the defensemen the Kings have, like Matt Greene, or look at Roman Polak, and the kind of players they are, the success they’ve had. You need to have that mix. Hopefully, I can be able to complement guys like Petro and Shatty in our careers and it will work for everybody.”