Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
The newest member of the Dallas Stars will make his debut on Thursday night on the third line, and feels that coming to Dallas is the best decision he could have made.
With Ryder departing in the trade there was much speculation about where coach Glen Gulutzan would slot in his newest weapon, especially considering that the Stars haven't exactly been struggling in the goal-scoring department with the line combinations already in place. Cole is a right-handed shot who can play both wings, but has primarily played right wing during his time in the NHL and that's where most of his success has come.
"He's a left shot that plays on the right side," said Gulutzan on Wednesday, per Mike Heika. "I've got some ideas and I am going to sit down and think about it. I would guess the right side."
With Jagr and Eriksson already entrenched on the right side, the actual placement of Cole into the lineup probably wasn't as tough a decision as Gulutzan made it out to be. Here were the line combinations from Thursday's morning skate.
Morrow - Benn - Jagr
Roussel - Roy - Eriksson
Smith - Eakin - Cole
Nystrom - Fiddler - Garbutt
Dillon - Robidas
Benn - Daley
Oleksiak - Goligoski
Fraser seems to be the odd man out in this game. Roussel was outstanding on the second line on Tuesday night against Columbus and the second line in general had a big night -- it's logical then that Gulutzan would hesitate to split them up just to make room for Cole, which would have meant moving Eriksson back to the left wing where he struggled a bit earlier this season.
Having Erik Cole on the third line speaks to just how much more depth the Stars have now on this team than just a month or so ago. When Nieuwendyk speaks of him having a top six role with the team, it's more about having that depth and continuity needed so that the Stars aren't rushing players like Alex Chiasson into a top six role, especially given the potential departures of Brenden Morrow and Jaromir Jagr this summer.
There also seems to be too much emphasis placed on "top-six" versus "bottom-six" as far as where a player is actually playing. Gulutzan has long stated he wants to be able to roll four lines as evenly as possible, and the most successful teams are those that have not two but three legitimately dangerous lines that forces teams into tough matchups.
The Stars were seeing that in recent weeks, as Cody Eakin and Reilly Smith have started to really produce on that line -- and were a big part of Ryder's surge in point production (he improved as well, so give Ryder credit).
Erik Cole on a third line with Smith and Eakin is a dream; this is a guy that drives the play, who gets to the net and has the speed to push up the ice with Smith and Eakin -- and he has the defensive wherewithal that Ryder sometimes neglected to show on the ice. The Stars now have three lines that Gulutzan can roll with in nearly every situation, and all three pack a legit scoring punch.
"From what I've seen of them, they're in the category of a couple young guys that are playing real good hockey," Cole said on Thursday following morning skate. "They're not just guys that are out there to keep the puck out of their own net. They can make plays and have a good skill set to go along with the speed. And they can play at a good pace, so it should be good."
If these line combinations work out, it also provides for a bit more flexibility when Ray Whitney returns.
As far as Cole goes, this could be a case of the Stars getting a player rejuvunated by a change of scenery and heading to a team that wants and needs his services. Cole is under contract for two more seasons so this was by no means a temporary or "rental" situation for the Stars or Cole -- who waived his NTC to allow the trade after talking to former teammate Ray Whitney.
"We talked about the city, the schooling, the area in which he is living for the family," Cole said on Wednesday, per Mike Heika. "This isn't a situation where I am here for just the remainder of the season and then I am done. I have two years left on my contract. This being a very family-friendly area was definitely helpful. Obviously, we talked about on the ice, how he likes the transition, the teammates, the coaching staff, everything, the set-up. All just glowing reviews."
There has been a lot of concern about Cole's production so far this season, with just six points through 19 games after scoring 35 goals a season ago. It's important to remember that the Canadiens underwent some major changes since last season, however, as well as trying to get back into the flow after his emotional involvement in the lockout -- in involvement that seemed to cause a rift with the Canadiens fans and perhaps the team in a way.
Cole als feels that it just took some time for him to get comfortable in the new system and find some chemistry with linemates not necessarily built for his style of play, with a cloud hanging over his head that Montreal was looking to move his contract along.. That shouldn't be the case here in Dallas, where the Stars specifically want what Cole can bring to the game and need him to be a part of the immediate future of the team.
"The opportunity to come here and play was the best decision for me," says Cole.