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.

But travel a little further down the various lists, and you'll find a somewhat surprising stat line.

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.


Marco Perruzza's picture

What would the backlash be if the Leafs had signed a 33 year old, point producing forward who doesn't contribute on the power play to a four year 18 million dollar contract? The fact of the matter is that Gauthier overpayed for an aging player, who has only been successful playing with Erik Staal. I mean at least Jason Blake scored 40 goals once!

George Prax's picture

The Canadiens don't need help on special teams. They've been top 10 in the league with this line-up for the last couple of years, both PP and PK. The issue is 5 on 5 scoring (26th last year, dead last the year before), which could be chalked up to a lack of size among forwards. Cole is 6'2" 200lbs, he hits, he uses his size offensively, and more importantly, he scores most of his goals at even strength.

People focus way too much on special teams these days. You still need even strength production to compete in the league, and that's exactly what Cole brings to the table. If Cole produces 20-22 goals, about as many assists, and continues his pace in hits (he currently leads the team with 3 1/2 a game), he'll have more than earned $4.5 million.

I find it laughable that you'd brush it off as overpayment for an "aging player" four games into the season. Unjustified assessments just as this is exactly why I wrote this in the first place.

Marco Perruzza's picture

I am aware of how strong the Habs power play has been in the past seasons. My argument is that a point producing forward making 4.5 million a season should be able to help the power play. Cole was not a right fit for the Canadiens. He is being paid like an elite power forward and yet he is not that type of player. Joel Ward was a younger, cheaper fit for what Montreal needed.

My assessment is definitely not based on four games. I wrote this on July 27:

"Eric Cole was brought over (4.5 cap hit for 4 years) from the Carolina Hurricanes to provide size and grit to the Habs’ smallish forwards unit. Cole is a 33 year old, injury prone winger who will be a significant cap hit at the age of 37. Is it just me or is this a terrible signing? I know the Habs have been searching for the big, intimidating, banging winger for awhile now, but Eric Cole? Seriously? Even when healthy I’ve always felt let down watching Cole play."

The Canadiens have been publicly roasted since the lockout for not getting the 'big power forward' they were apparently missing. They tried to sign Ryan Malone and Brendan Shanahan and they tried to develop from within with Guillaume Latendresse, all were unsuccessful. Gauthier overreached with Cole and it will end up hurting the Habs in the long run.

George Prax's picture

Well, your argument that he should be able to play on the powerplay is wrong. The Canadiens were purposely looking for a player with size to contribute 5-on-5 scoring, and that's what they got. When healthy, already have about eight forwards to draw from for the powerplay without him. Cole doesn't need to be on that list, he wasn't signed to be on that list, and it would be a waste to use him in that situation when his skillset is better served playing 5-on-5, which is where he is most needed. Why waste both him and the powerplay time?

What's even more mystifying is your argument that Joel Ward would somehow be better than Cole in the role the Canadiens wanted him in? Cole is a top six winger, capable of producing 20 goals and 60 points on a good year. He hits, uses his body and scores most of his goals 5-on-5, all things the Canadiens need. Ward is just 2 years younger than him, NOT a notable point producer, and NOT a hitter despite his size. He might be a good fit with the Canadiens but he doesn't fit the same role in the slightest.

There's no denying the Canadiens paid a premium to get Cole to Montreal, but that shouldn't surprise anyone. Most UFA signings in this city are overpaid thanks to extenuating circumstances. Once you remove that premium Cole's salary is pretty much the going rate for the kind of player he is, and more importantly, he's exactly the right fit for Montreal. Size, even-strength scoring, hitting, should be defensively responsible. There's no problem here.

Marco Perruzza's picture

I'm sorry, I'm just trying to wrap my head around this. So 4.5 million for four years to a 33 year old player, who has reached 60 points once in his career, and has played 80 games once in eight seasons is a good deal? Too much term, too much money. The fact that all free agents are overpaid doesn't make this a good deal. Teams can improve and acquire players in other ways other than free agency, I find that argument to be a cop out that too many people use. Love the back and forth George!

George Prax's picture

At least get your facts right if you're going to shit all over him. He's played 4 seasons of 80 or more games, and only 3 under 70 since his rookie season. Four 20 goal seasons, hitter, big body, even strength scoring. It's easy to isolate one aspect of his statistics and ignore everything else, WHICH IS EXACTLY THE POINT OF THIS BLOG. The guy has actually contributed a lot, and it takes more than a quick glance over his TSN page to realize that.

And yes, the market is a perfectly good justification for player salaries. It's the nature of the game, players like Cole are overpaid. As are defensive defensemen, as well as centers, two things which, as a Leafs fan, you should know very well. The Habs had a need, and they filled it with Cole, whose strengths are most of those needs (as listed above). And even if he hasn't put up great stats in 5 games, so far, he's been earning his paycheck for the most part.

It's funny that you say there are other ways to acquire players. You said it yourself, the Canadiens have tried, and it hasn't worked. So they filled that need through free agency. I don't like the percentage of this team that is built through free agency, but it's totally reasonable to plug holes that way. It's tough to acquire any sort of power forward, after big centers they're the hardest thing to come by these days. So teams that need them the most, like Montreal, will get them whatever way they can. Again, just like how the Leafs desperately needed a center, and went out and got... Tim Connolly?

Marco Perruzza's picture

I'm sorry, but as per he has only played 80 games three times, and five seasons under 70 games in his ten year career. Cole's also played less than 70 games in three of the last four seasons. In fact, in the last three seasons Erik Cole has played 139 games and the much maligned Tim Connolly has played 189. Your comparison to Mike Komisarek is fine, but consider Komi was 27 and not 33 when the Leafs signed him, and I have no problem admitting it is a bad contract. As for Tim Connolly, he is three years younger than Cole and he is signed to a short deal (2 years). I haven't closed the book on Connolly (I actually think pretty highly of him), but if he is to struggle with the Leafs at least he'll be off the books after next season. Whereas Cole will still be a Hab in 2014-2015 making 4.5 million dollars as a 37 year old. Cole also makes more money than Lucic, Hartnell, Penner, Clowe, Ladd and Moulson, all better power forwards who would make the Habs power play. I guess it's a good contract.

George Prax's picture

You forgot to add the Edmonton and Carolina games in 2008-09 buddy. He played 80 games that year between to teams, so 202 games and two 80 game seasons.

Also, talk to me when all the players you mentioned who are "better" than Cole have signed whatever contracts they have when they're 33. You don't have to look any further defenseman in their mid-30s to see that the powerforward market is heading in the same direction.

Ironically, the guy played 4:30 on the powerplay last night lol

Marco Perruzza's picture

You're right. I forgot about the half year in Edmonton. To be fair everybody (including Cole) has wiped that part of his career from their memory. Can Cole play defense? Big game tonight!

George Prax's picture

In any case, you were wrong.

Kyle Andrew Busch's picture

The problem is that he looks really slow out there. Only saw a couple minutes of him playing in MTL, but that's what I noticed.

evilbobsaget's picture

Dont think Cole is a good fit for the J-Habs. Martin hates any player above 5'5". There is no room for nitty gritty corner crunching dirty hockey in Martin's system.