Ian Cole knows Colorado Avalanche have to walk before Stanley Cup run

Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- NHL players spend their offseasons in a variety of ways. For example, Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole spent three months being unable to walk.

Cole was diagnosed with femoroacetabular impingement in both of his hips, a condition in which extra bone growth around the hip joint causes discomfort and potentially larger problems. After the Avalanche's second-round elimination against the San Jose Sharks last postseason -- one in which Cole played through considerable pain -- it was time for surgery to correct the issue. Not only for the immediate future of the 30-year-old defenseman's NHL career, but to avoid possible hip replacement later in life.

"I basically didn't walk for three months," Cole told ESPN. "Everything atrophied pretty significantly."

His rehab was arduous and prolonged, using machines to get his hip muscles back in shape and methods such as blood-flow-restriction training to build up his leg strength.

"Basically, you put a tourniquet on your legs, and you only get about 20 percent of blood flow. Just enough to make your legs not go numb," he said. "And you get the most intense burn you've ever had, when you're doing squats. It's a way to build muscle when you can't put any weight on it. That really helped. But the small hip stabilizers -- the smaller muscle groups -- took longer."

While the Avalanche thought Cole could miss a chunk of the regular season, he was back on the ice on Oct. 14, if not necessarily back at his usual effectiveness. There were times when Cole would be defending with one hand. His arms were solid. His legs were solid. But then his hips would collapse.

"It was a little bit of an adjustment, but I think we're good now," he said.

Based on the numbers, he has been better than good. In 51 games, Cole has four goals and 20 assists for 24 points, one goal and two points away from his career highs. Along with this newfound offensive pop, he remains a steady shot-blocking defender, second best on the team with a plus-29 rating.

"Great guy. Stay-at-home defenseman. I'm a big fan of his," Avalanche goalie Philipp Grubauer said with a laugh. "But he's been scoring a couple goals this season, too."

The role and offensive philosophy of Cole, a frequent partner of 24-year-old defenseman Nikita Zadorov, changed heading into this season.

"Last year, I was playing with Tyson Barrie," said Cole, in reference to the now Toronto Maple Leafs offensive defenseman. "And I think, just based on the fact that I was with him, we would play with Nate [MacKinnon] all the time. So I would just pretty much defer to them. I would get the puck and I would be like, 'Where's Nate? Where's Tyse?' And I would get it to them, which was very beneficial. They scored a ton of goals, and that's great. But points-wise for me, that doesn't really work out."

Points-wise, it has worked better than ever this season for Cole.

"I came into this season with a 'shoot the puck when I have the opportunity' mentality" Cole said. "And it's worked out. It's taking the advantage of the opportunities.".

But he's also the first guy to tell you that success shouldn't necessarily be judged by his scoring totals.

"I'm not that concerned with points," Cole said. "I don't think that points are necessarily, for me, the whole story of having a good season."

What would be a good season by his measure?

"Winning a Stanley Cup. It's 100 percent team success," he said. "Don't get me wrong: Points are great. Points matter. But I don't think having 25 points versus 21 points or 15 points is the deciding factor for us being successful as a team or not. It's the consistency, shift to shift."

Cole has won the Stanley Cup twice, in back-to-back seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He's one of the few Avalanche players with a Cup ring, and the only one with two of them.

He's also one of only five players on the roster north of 30 years old, having started his career in 2010-11 with the St. Louis Blues.

"Very skilled team. But we have a young team. I think an example of us being a little bit immature was that game against Washington," said Cole, referencing a 3-2 loss the Capitals on Feb. 13.

"We had a 2-0 lead at home. They start to push. We didn't handle it very well. We're not able to withstand that push. We're not able to do the whole bend-but-don't-break-type deal. Hopefully, we're mature enough to learn lessons from that. Because we need to, clearly."

There were more lessons learned at the Avs' next game, the Stadium Series outdoor event at the Air Force Academy. It's no secret Colorado likes to play an up-tempo offensive style, as they're first in the NHL with a goals-per-game average of 3.55 through Tuesday. It's no secret that their opponents in that outdoor game, the Los Angeles Kings ... don't.

"We have to check. We're not a gifted scoring team. We have to slow teams down, and this was a prime candidate," said Kings coach Todd McLellan after Los Angeles' 3-1 Stadium Series win. "We weren't successful all the time, but maybe we got them to a point where they were frustrated."

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said that's exactly what happened, and it's something that shouldn't happen when you're the best offensive team in the league against the worst team in the conference.

"As the game went on, we got a little bit frustrated," Bednar said. "For a long stretch early in the second period and the third, we had a tough time breaking through it."

Cole has seen what it takes to win. He has seen how teams lose. He's watching the learning process of this Colorado team with great interest. When does a young team finally get that education, to actualize as a champion? Can it happen after tough, regular-season losses, or can it happen only after a long playoff run?

"I think you can have a chicken-or-the-egg discussion on that," said Cole. "Where does it come from? We need to look at games like Washington and learn. We're going to be in a similar situation over the next 25 games. If we get better ... if we say, 'This is what happened against Washington, and this is how we fix it.' We have an objective [with the] team in the sense that guys are pretty aware with how we play. And that's essential for maturing quickly."

Before a championship run, you have to learn how to walk. As Ian Cole will tell you, it'll take time, hard work and devotion, but in the end you can stand tall.