The Dallas Stars should trade Erik Cole. #hottakes! Seriously, though, in these days of dwindling playoff hopefulness, the status of the veteran winger is more and more becoming a point of discussion. And why not? With a bit of season to go, Cole sits third on the Stars in goals (18), tied for fourth in points (32), and first in hits (114). Fun comparison alert: 18 goals is the same total as Martin St. Louis, Jeff Carter, and Jonathan Toews.
The point of this isn’t to suggest Cole is the equal of any of those players. For starters, Cole gives you about 14 minutes each night and the other three uniformly pass 17. He similarly fails the "defensively responsible" test (57.8 ZSO%), and isn’t exactly a playmaker (14 assists, just like David Legwand). Really, Erik Cole is a speedy, streaky winger who can, depending on your personal spin, provide either invaluable bursts of secondary scoring, or lose minutes to more well-rounded players when the goals aren’t coming.
In a vacuum, his production could be intriguing to a playoff-bound squad, but what really spikes Cole’s value is something off the ice: his contract. The fact that Erik Cole is in the final year of his contract means he’s an appealing gamble. At a fraction of his $4.5 million cap hit, a team can cross fingers and hope he gets the kind of hot that carries you to a championship. If he doesn’t, he can be benched, forgotten, and left to walk in the offseason.
Imagine you’re the Chicago Blackhawks; cash-strapped, and now without Patrick Kane for the next 6-10 weeks. With big extensions set to kick in after this season, do you trade serious assets for a more controllable resource, or roll the dice on Cole? There’s no downside.
Conversely, if you’re the Stars, you know Erik Cole is exactly the sort of asset that tends to bounce around this time of year. You know as well his production has been solid recently. He’s even been showcased a bit on the top lines due to the unfortunate string of injuries that put you into trouble in the first place. Brutal roster calculus suggests Cole is likely not a part of the next great Stars squad, but the 2nd round pick he might fetch, or the nearly-there prospect, very well could be.
As straightforward as all of that sounds, I would argue there are just as many reasons to keep Erik Cole around.
The cut and thrust of Trade Erik Cole lies elsewhere in Dallas’ offense. The additions of Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky on long term deals add to a top six that already included Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Valeri Nichushkin, and might soon include the likes of Brett Ritchie, Colton Sceviour, or Curtis McKenzie. Cole, you would argue, represents, at best, a road block. Even producing, he does so at the expense of someone younger and cheaper. When he isn’t producing? Forget about it.
But look a little closer. Brett Ritchie, Valeri Nichushkin, Colton Scevoiur, and Curtis McKenzie have combined for 33 goals. Total. For their entire careers, and 28 of those goals belong to Nichushkin and Sceviour. Nuke and Sceviour, furthermore, have both dealt with significant injuries. Ritchie (who has also been hurt) and McKenzie, at this stage, are still AHL players called up due to necessity. It’s awfully assumptive to think two of the four are ready to carry an NHL scoring-line load.
If they can’t, things get complicated. Do the Stars risk breaking up their checking line? Cody Eakin has spent time in scoring situations, but he’s also one of the Stars’ more effective players on the faceoff dot (50 FoW% this season). Antoine Roussel has undeniable promise, trouble with penalties, and exactly zero points since January 17th. I’m not even going to contemplate a world in which the Stars rely on Ryan Garbutt to demonstrate the sort of restraint required to be relied upon in a critical role.
Step away from the immediate frustration of this underwhelming season, and the Stars look much more like ascending contenders Tampa Bay or the New York Islanders, and much less like perennial train wreck Carolina, or heaven help us, Buffalo.
It’s scary, but let’s play What-If? What if Val doesn’t get back quick enough from a full lost season? What if Sceviour never solves his little issue with ice time? What if Roussel maxes out as an extremely useful checking winger? What if Ritchie and McKenzie never translate their lower-tier success to the NHL level? Less scary, what if it takes an extra year for any of the above?
Think of Erik Cole as something of an insurance policy. With his occasional scoring in the fold, suddenly Val can afford to come back slowly, McKenzie not at all, etc. He gives the Stars options, and with his deal set to expire, should do so south of $4.5 million each year. Throw in the value of consistency, the general crap shoot of the draft (Cole is almost certainly not going to fetch a first rounder), and suddenly retaining him isn’t nearly as much of an intellectual stretch.