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Bye Week Thoughts: the Matt Hunwick vs. Ian Cole debate

We put a microscope on Mike Sullivan and his interesting choices regarding healthy scratches, pairings, and who to start over who in regard to the defense. In this instance, it’s Hunwick vs. Cole.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Sullivan, a man constantly lauded for his ability to create line combinations and pairings that instill magic on the ice, has recently made decisions regarding his defensive corps that’s causied a handful of us to scratch our heads.

Currently, with everyone back from injuries, the Penguins defense is made up of Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta, Ian Cole, Matt Hunwick, Chad Ruhwedel, and Jamie Oleksiak. That’s eight guys, leaving two healthy scratches to appoint each night. Here were the pairings for Sunday’s tilt with the Bruins:

Something to pay attention to via these combinations is that Hunwick, for a second game in a row, has started over Cole, who was named as a healthy scratch by Sullivan once again this season — an ever-growing theme for him. As we know, Sullivan and Cole haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but this is a little strange, especially considering Hunwick’s recent weak performances.

I can understand wanting to ride the Oleksiak train until it stops rolling, because he’s been hot. I can also definitely understand being deterred by Cole’s recent habit of taking too many penalties. But to me, Cole has the slight edge do to his style of play and deserves a lineup spot over Hunwick, even if their stat lines are generally the same.

So, because there’s nothing better to do during a bye week, I decided to dig a little deeper regarding my theory and see what’s actually going on. Let’s take a look at Hunwick vs. Cole.

First, let’s talk about the eye test.

The eye test is where Hunwick fails for me. Throwing aside a positive tone, the 32-year-old has looked substandard just about every time he’s on the ice. When his line gets called, there’s usually a high chance of him missing an assignment, not covering his man, and leaving huge chunks of space open in front of his goaltender. That’s a perfect formula for goals to be scored against you. More often than not do I see Hunwick tilting his head back in frustration when a goal slips in down low.

This point was the most obvious in the first period of Pittsburgh’s game against Boston, where we saw him completely ignore a sneaking Ryan Spooner near the left side of the cage.

With Jake Guentzel pinching down into the corner with Oleksiak to try and gain possession from Boston’s dump in, Hunwick slides back to the left slot to cover a streaking David Krejci. That’s all well and good, but his job as that right defenseman role is to cover his left defenseman’s area when he has to leave his zone to go and make a play on the puck, preventing opposing team players from filling all exposed lanes to the net (think about dropping to the low block to prevent easy layups when the ball reverses to the other side of the court during a zone defense in basketball — similar concept). Normally that includes paying attention to un-covered guys creeping down the goal line directly beside your goalie.

Here’s Hunwick’s poor gapping coverage from the opposite angle.

He basically gives Tristan Jarry zero chance to make that save while also providing some half-assed poke checks. Point-blank range is almost impossible to judge and stop for a netminder, and the Penguins pay the price with an early Boston goal. With him on the ice, goals against seem to happen quite a bit. It could be a coincidence, but his plus-minus is -7 and both his Corsi For and Fenwick For percentages are below 50.

There are several defenses Hunwick can lean on to bail him out. Recently, he’s playing on the right side rather than the left, the one he’s seemingly more comfortable in. However, his play really hasn’t differed much as he alters between the two. Also, his forwards playing defense in front of him haven’t helped. In fact, the forwards’ defense has been atrocious all season.

Cole’s eye test is more positive and reliable — his physicality helps with that. He also generally puts himself in better defensive position. Last week, in the Penguins rout of the Flyers, Cole was lined up with Schultz, who had an incredible return from injury, on the second pairing, and both of them complemented each other really well.

Second, let’s consider some stats that compare Hunwick to Cole.

On paper, Hunwick and Cole are putting up strikingly similar statistics offensively, much like they did in the 2016-17 season.

Before the Penguins game against the Bruins, Hunwick recorded 12.82 high-danger chances against per 60 and 11.25 high-danger chances for per 60. On the flip side, Cole had 13.22 HDCA and 10.03 HDCF (via Natural Stat Trick). While Hunwick plays more minutes and generates a little more offense do to his style of play, he turns the puck over more. Cole is an elite shot-blocker and is super physical, but his issues come with taking too many penalties.

These guys, more notably Cole, are defensive-defensemen; they don’t really quarterback power plays or bury a bunch of clappers from the blue line like Letang and Schultz do, and that’s completely fine for their role on the team. They play roughly the same amount of minutes per night (Hunwick ~18/Cole ~17), but Cole has the better Corsi For and Fenwick percentages, with both being above 50%.

I know it’s a little silly to be concerning myself with bottom-six defensemen, but it’s a striking decision from Sullivan that keeps being made. Ultimately, it doesn’t mean that much. The Penguins are playing better and their defense seems to be improving with the injury bug finally gone away — just makes for some interesting conversation.

Who do you think should get the nod from Sullivan? Leave your two cents below.