When it comes to the upcoming 2013-2014 season, some players on the Dallas Stars' roster already have clearly defined roles: Tyler Seguin is going to be the #1 center, Alex Goligoski is going to be the quarterback on the powerplay, Antoine Roussel is going to infuriate opposing players worse than someone spoiling the newest Breaking Bad episode, and so on.
But when it comes to 34 year-old veteran winger Erik Cole, the picture doesn't paint itself quite so clearly.
Cole, acquired mid-season last year from the Montreal Canadiens, bounced all over the Stars' lineup upon arrival, playing at various times on the top three lines, as well as on both the powerplay and the penalty kill. Former head coach Glen Gulutzan eventually found a stable spot for Cole on the 3rd line with Eric Nystrom and Vernon Fiddler, playing in primarily defensive situations. Cole got the odd chance to move up the lineup as the season wore on, but was never able to truly stand out in the top six.
Cole's numbers reflected his spot on the 3rd line, finishing with six goals, one assist and an ugly -7 rating in 28 games for the Stars. His stats with the Habs prior to the trade - three goals and three assists in 19 games - weren't much better, and likely were a big factor in his exit from Montreal.
While numbers like that would suggest that Cole doesn't have much to contribute in the way of offense, going back a little further into history tells a different story. Cole was a beast during his final full season in Montreal, scoring 35 goals, 61 points and adding a +11 rating, playing almost the entire season on the Canadiens' top line with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty. Cole has been a consistent 1st or 2nd line scoring threat for most of his career, but his 2011-2012 season with the Habs featured a career high in goals and a tie for career high in points.
It also featured this wonderful gem of a moment:
So, which Erik Cole will the Dallas Stars have on their hands when the season begins in October? The one that was tied for 11th in goals in the NHL in 2011-2012, or the one that couldn't force his way up from the 3rd line in the half season after the lockout?
As of right now it's still too early to say for sure, but if training camp and the start of the preseason are any indication, new bench boss Lindy Ruff seems more than willing to give the veteran a fair chance at rekindling the success he had prior to the lockout.
On Saturday Cole lined up on the right side of Dallas' top line alongside Seguin and Jamie Benn, a trio that earned rave reviews from Ruff for their performance.
"They were impressive. They made a lot of good plays, had real good speed," said Stars coach Lindy Ruff, per Mark Stepneski on Stars Inside Edge. "I thought Tyler had a real good day. He had a good day yesterday and I thought he had an even better day today. Erik probably had his best day. They were fun to watch play."
Added Seguin, "It was the first time playing with Cole on a line and Benny and I think there is some chemistry that is going to be forming, but for the first day it felt pretty good."
That chemistry Seguin was talking about appeared to carry over into Stars' preseason opener versus the St. Louis Blues, with both Cole and Seguin finding the net in the 6-5 shootout loss. As Brad noted in his game observations recap, the line appears to be clicking right now, which could be a very good sign heading into the start of the regular season.
On paper, the combination makes perfect sense. Seguin and Benn are puck possession monsters, and when they want to distribute the puck Cole certainly has the size (6'2") and speed to create enough open space to receive it. It's the same setup that worked when Cole was on a line with Desharnais and Pacioretty in Montreal.
There's no guarantee, however, that the three stay together. Valeri Nichushkin and Alex Chiasson could force their way up the lineup, and who knows where Rich Peverley will fit in once he returns from his irregular heartbeat procedure.
But the beauty with Cole, and probably his most valuable asset for the Stars, is his versatility. If Cole clicks on the top line, great. If not, he could still find a valuable spot on the 2nd line, or use his responsible defensive capabilities to be effective on the third line. Being able to play both special teams units, as well as left wing and right wing, is icing on the cake.
While it's not yet known which role he'll settle into when the season begins, that's not necessarily a bad thing. A player like Cole can benefit the Stars in a variety of ways, and will certainly be a useful tool in helping Ruff and his staff assemble a deep and balanced roster.