When the Stars acquired Erik Cole for Michael Ryder there was some initial confusion about why the deal was made. Ryder at the time had 14 points in 19 games.
Cole? He had six points in 19 games.
It didn't help matters when Ryder finished the season with 21 points in 27 games for the Canadiens. Cole had seven points the rest of the way. The trade looked like a disaster.
"We looked down the road at when Michael is a UFA this summer - we have to make a decision on all of our UFAs - and when we were discussing whether we would entertain the idea of re-signing this player, the opportunity came about with Erik Cole," said Nieuwendyk. "It gives ourselves some size and strength to compete in the West and two years provides us some security."
The idea of moving a player close to free agency makes sense, but dealing him for an under-performing aging vet that would allow you the privilege of paying him 9,000,000 over the coming two years as you rebuild? That's sketchy.
The Stars strategic decisions with Cole didn't help matters. The two forwards with whom he played the most in Dallas were Eric Nystrom and Vernon Fiddler. This was essentially the Stars checking line. Fiddler and Nystrom were given 30% offensive zone starts and the highest Quality of Competition of any Stars forwards outside of Jamie Benn. When the three were together they were a 40% Corsi percentage line. They simply weren't suited to the role at all.
Enter Lindy Ruff and his staff. Cole still isn't perfect, but the Stars are getting quite a bit more out of him than Glen Gulutzan and his staff were able to. He ended last season as a 45% Corsi player between Montreal and Dallas. This season he's sitting at 47% overall.
The main and most significant difference is his offensive production. Cole has 20 points in just 39 games. Cumulatively last season he had 13 in 47 games played. Ruff and his staff deserve credit for part of the turnaround. Cole unquestionably fits better in the system Ruff is running given that they are emphasizing his speed by having him crash the net hard, but they've also gotten more out of Cole by decreasing his defensive responsibilities.
In the full 2013 season Cole got 41.2% offensive zone starts. Under Ruff this season he is getting 55%. Last season he was essentially on a checking line and faced tough competition. This year he has a fairly low Quality of Competition. Lately he has been playing with Rich Peverley. He has also spent time with Shawn Horcoff and Valeri Nichushkin. The skill upgrade around him is hard to not notice.
What this all means is that the Stars have solid depth up front. The Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin pairing has worked like gangbusters. Cody Eakin has centered, at times, a solid secondary scoring line. The recent surge of Cole with Peverley has given the Stars a third option. The fourth line has continued to be successful in their role too. The forward group can definitely be improved, but it at least looks like a playoff caliber group.
If the Stars should fall out of the race though Cole has emerged as a potentially valuable trade piece. His scoring pace would put him at 42 points when things are said and done. His career average is about 50. He is doing what you would expect a 35 year old Erik Cole to do. If the Stars end up in a selling mode he should have value, especially with an extra year of control and the increasing salary cap.
The Stars hope that won't matter. They have been much more enjoyable to watch this season, and Cole deserves a fair amount of credit for his role in things. The secondary offense he is providing gives the Stars an extra layer to their attack. He wouldn't be rebounding as well without the work of Ruff though, and he deserves a lot of credit for helping Cole get back on track.
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