When the Dallas Stars acquired Erik Cole from the Montreal Canadiens in February for then leading scorer Michael Ryder and a third round draft pick, there was many a head scratched. Cole seemed to have fallen out of favor in Montreal, while Ryder was carrying the Stars' offense on a nightly basis.
The bigger picture was easy to see for those who wanted to actually look, however. Ryder, having re-proven his goal-scoring prowess on a value contract given to him by Dallas, would have commanded too much money on the free agent market. He likely would have left. For nothing. In Cole the Stars got back a player who has put up similar offensive numbers in the past, and more importantly one whose speed, size and defensive game are all superior to Ryder's. They got value back for an expiring deal.
The problem as the season wore on, however, became the perceived discrepancy in his paychecks versus offensive totals. He tallied just six goals and one assist in 28 games.
Either the Stars traded for an aging, declining player, or there were some extenuating circumstances.
Pulled from our game previews here at Defending Big D, here's a list of the lines on which Cole started.
That's not tinkering, mid-game lines. That's lines that practiced, saw time together at morning skate, skated together during line rushes at shoot-around, and then were called upon in game action. I'm not entirely sure that's all of them, either.
That's 10 different lines on which to start in just 28 games.
So when people call the trade that sent Michael Ryder to the Canadiens a poor one, or when Cole's value as it relates to his contract in 28 games of an already abbreviated season is questioned, it's only natural for some (me in this case) to get a little defensive. We don't have all of the evidence we need to judge the move or the decision to take on that salary.
Yet 7 points in 28 games and a -7 rating speak for themselves. That's not what Cole's accustomed to producing in the NHL and the Stars need more moving forward if they're to crack the top-eight (or the top-four in the Midwest Division, or whatever...).
Evaluating his performance through such difficult circumstances is tricky for fans being honest and considerate, and probably equally or more so for Jim Nill, who now owns a pretty hefty contract for which he did not trade. Will Nill envision Cole projecting to a top-six player the way Nieuwendyk obviously did? Will he be forced into that point of view by a putrid UFA class in June? Maybe so.
Maybe Cole deserves a better shot. A more consistent one. He was one of the Stars' best players in April on more than a handful of nights and when he got going he really showed what his experience and skating can bring to the table. What's more is perhaps he got going because his situation had finally stabilized, and linemates Nystrom and Fiddler proved to be a match in the chemistry department.
Can that chemistry last?
On a team that makes the playoffs in the Western Conference is the Fiddler line one that gets more than nine minutes a game? Perhaps. Perhaps not. So to bury Cole there (if that's the way it shakes out, which is doubtful) would seem a condemnation. Training camp will tell all. If the Stars have the horses and he's outperformed, will they have the gumption necessary to decrease his playing time? Will he become Brenden Morrow - Minimized at even strength and then turned to on the power play to provide a net-front presence?
That didn't work so well before, and Cole has some significant years left on this contract.
Nill and company will have to hope that the April version of Cole is the one that perpetuates over their next 82 games. He skated well this season. He plays a nice two-way game. The guess is that his projected (perceived) place on the team will change several times as the off-season unfolds and acquisitions are made.
He has only to hope that a more stable situation presents itself as training camp unfolds, and that his production comes back up a little as this franchise tries desperately for a quick turn-around. On a young, young team, the Stars will need him to be a strong veteran presence and lead by example.