Erik Cole: Patience Required
When you look up and down the stats page for the Montreal Canadiens, there really shouldn't be all that many surprises. Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec lead the team in points, Scott Gomez only has one assist in 4 games, PK Subban leads the team in ice time per game, the usual stuff.
Four years, $18 million, and a no-movement clause, and the Canadiens high profile UFA-day acquisition only has an assist in four games? What's more, he's barely been averaging 14:30 minutes of ice time?
Something's not right here.
At least, that's what most people would say. But before jumping to conclusions, you have to delve a little deeper into the numbers.
As most of you surely know, stats can be a little deceiving. For instance, any people fail to recognize that plus/minus is actually just as much an offensive team stat as it is an individual defensive stat. Or just like how penalty minutes are relative to how many fighting majors and game misconducts a player has, to use an easier example
The point is, you have to look a little further than the TSN stat page to figure things out, and that's definitely been the case for Erik Cole's performance over the first four games of the season.
For starters, the main complaint that I've seen from fans and experts so far is Cole's average ice time. Through four games, the forward has only cracked 15 minutes once, in Saturday's game against Toronto. His low-point was under 14 minutes in Winnipeg.
But it's not that simple. Erik Cole isn't a powerplay specialist, and you'd be hard pressed to see him on the ice during a penalty. Last year, in 82 games with Carolina, Cole put up 26 goals and 26 assists for 52 points. Only 3 of those goals and 5 of those assists were amassed with the man advantage. Cole was only 6th among forwards in average ice time on the powerplay, generally taking the ice on the second powerplay unit, if at all. Consider also that Carolina drew the most powerplays in the league last season, with 346 opportunities, and isn't as deep in terms of scoring forwards as the Habs.
To put these stats into perspective, Cole figured 2nd in even-strength ice time per game last season, second to only Eric Staal, with 14:30 minutes a game, on average.
Flash forward another year to a Montreal Canadiens team that, arguably, has a little more depth among its forward ranks (for better or worse), and you get the following:
- Cole figures only ninth on the team in powerplay ice time per game, averaging 1:08 in other words only one or two shifts per game.
- Cole hasn't played a second of shorthanded time.
- He figures 6th among forwards for even strength ice time with an average of 13:29 a game, behind Gionta, Pacioretty, Gomez, Plekanec, and Desharnais, essentially third among wingers.
In laymen's terms, Jacques Martin generally doesn't play Cole on any special teams. He's been using him in the situation the Canadiens signed him to play in: even strength, 5-on-5 hockey.
Taking it a little further:
- Game 1 @ Toronto: The Canadiens spent 16 minutes on either the powerplay or penalty kill. That leaves a base of 45 minutes out of which Cole was on the ice for about 13:30.
- Game 2 @ Winnipeg: Three nights later, the Canadiens would spend about 18 minutes on special teams, leaving around 42 minutes for Cole's 12:14 of even strength ice time.
- Game 3 vs Calgary: 14 minutes on special teams, so 46 potential minutes for Cole. Not coincidentally, Cole would play nearly 15 minutes in this game, with only 11 seconds on the powerplay, the most of the season so far for the veteran winger.
- Game 4 vs Colorado: The Habs would spend just over 10 minutes on special teams in this barnburner, but Cole would play 13 minutes even strength, with 1:40 on the powerplay.
So what does this all tell us? In Carolina, Cole was sixth among Canes forwards with the man advantage for ice time, for the team that had the most powerplays in the league. Cole would average 18:27 throughout the season per game, with 14:22 even strength ice time per game, both only second on the team among forwards behind the captain. Overall, Cole was probably 3rd on the Canes' depth chart behind Staal and rookie Jeff Skinner (who averaged less time by default).
A year later in Montreal, Cole has four forwards making more money than him, and 8 other offensive forwards to compete with for ice time. Among them is Tomas Plekanec, the Canadiens jack-of-all-trades, guaranteed to lead the forwards in ice time thanks to his versatility. Brian Gionta is the team's captain, and along with Mike Cammalleri (when he returns from injury), the two figure as the Canadiens biggest offensive threats, followed closely by Max Pacioretty. David Desharnais has seemingly become a Jacques Martin favorite, putting him high up in ice time as well, and Scott Gomez will get his usual minutes. Despite his deficiencies, Andrei Kostitsyn is a sniper and a key to the powerplay, so he'll continue getting ice time, and lord only knows what J-Mart has in store for Travis Moen and Matt Darche
All of this to say that it isn't that big of a deal that through four games, Cole has only seen about three quarters of a period of ice time per night. He doesn't play on special teams, and that's sort what the Canadiens tend to rely on to win games. He's not really a defensive forward so that actually reduces his base even further -- although that's not as easily calculated in minutes.
Pierre Gauthier signed Erik Cole to do one thing. Provide support for this team's main group of forwards in five-on-five situations. Could he be getting a little more ice time? Certainly, and I'll refer you again to Martin's mantra of playing defensively for large portions of the game. But that's obviously not what we're here to discuss, no matter how frustrating it can be. It also doesn't mean that Cole is being misused, or isn't living up to his potential.
It would be nice if he was able to pick up more than one assist in those four games, but it's not a big deal. Along with everything discussed above, we must also keep in mind that Cole is new to the team, and has to build chemistry with his new linemates, who, for all intents and purposes, already know each other well.
We've seen a lot of good out of Erik Cole in four games so far, even if it hasn't translated to many points or ice time. For now, Habs fans can take solace in the fact that the best is yet to come.