Erik Cole has got a lot of really stellar hockey-player qualities. He's big (6'2", 205lbs), skilled (390 points in 620 NHL games) and fast. He plays a physical, go-to-the-net kind of game which enables him to draw a ton of penalties, which is a big plus for a team with a top-ten PP. He's the one who'll take a hit to make the play, and who'll struggle on when injured. He'll willingly put up with sticks in the face when he stands in the crease or risk himself to block a shot in the last minute of a close game. He's what other players call a heart-and-soul guy. At least, he's been all of those things when wearing a Carolina Hurricanes uniform.
The thing with a heart-and-soul guy, however, is that his heart and soul have to be really into what he's doing if he's going to be successful. With the Hurricanes, there was no question of that. The guy loved it in Carolina. The team drafted him and captain Eric Staal was his best friend and roommate. He was mentored by one of the team's icons, got married and had a family there. He won the Stanley Cup with that team. He really, really wanted to stay. In the end, the Canadiens outbid the Hurricanes and the player, who was likely looking at his last chance for a long-term contract, chose security. He went with his head, not his heart.
That's the problem with predicting Cole's transition to Montreal. It may turn out he's able to bring the same level of intensity to the Canadiens that he brought to the Hurricanes. It should be understood that it won't be easy. Sure, these guys are professionals and should understand that moving from team to team throughout the course of a career is likely. Sometimes, however, it's not that simple. A guy who bleeds for his teammates does so partly because that kind of game is in his nature, and partly because his teammates have earned his trust and dedication. It's not the kind of relationship that happens instantly.
It didn't happen for Cole in Edmonton. When his beloved 'Canes traded him before the 2008-09 season, he didn't fit in immediately. He put up only 27 point in 63 games for the Oilers, then 15 in 17 games after being traded back to Carolina before the season ended. When he first arrived in Edmonton, he expressed a sense of regret about the trade.
"They always made it easy for me to go about my business, live my life and enjoy myself and my family," he said of fans and management in Carolina. "We really had a great time raising our children (Bella and Landon) there and, actually, the plan right now is to retire there unless we find someplace better. I've got family that still lives in Raleigh."
On trading for him to come back to Raleigh that same season, 'Canes GM Jim Rutherford said bringing Cole home was the right thing to do, for both the team and the player.
"He's really excited about coming back," said Rutherford. "I don't think that he was as comfortable in Edmonton. He was used to being here, and he views this as his home. He has very good chemistry playing with Eric Staal, and I don't think he found that chemistry playing with anybody else in Edmonton."
Cole himself, even though he tried to paint the Oiler picture with brighter colours at the time, now admits Rutherford was right.
"Going to Edmonton wasn't a great opportunity or situation on a personal level, but my family and I were determined to make the most of it," Cole says. "We always hoped we would make our way back to Carolina at some point, and it turned out to be sooner than expected."
Hmmm. So, it's pretty well established that Erik Cole loves the Hurricanes organization and thinks of Raleigh as his home. The question now is whether he can transplant that emotion to Montreal, because, without the passion for the team, his style of game is a difficult one to play convincingly.
The difference this time around, the optimists among us will contend, is that Cole didn't choose to go to Edmonton. He was traded and forced to simply make the best of it. Montreal is his choice. He could have decided to take fewer years and remain in the city he loves. Instead, he did the wiser thing for the security of his family and his retirement plans. That's where the battle between head and heart came into play. The head won, in this case. It remains to be seen whether the heart will follow.
In a rather nostalgic interview with a Raleigh reporter a couple of days after choosing Montreal, Cole reflected on his decision to leave the Hurricanes. The offers, initially, were pretty close, he explains. Then the Habs upped the ante with an extra year the Hurricanes wouldn't match.
"Carolina's (initial offer) was for $11 million and Montreal for $12 million," Cole said. Had the offers stayed roughly the same, he said, "I think I'd still be a Hurricane. I said all along I would listen to offers. All things being equal, we were definitely going to stay. I had talked to Paul (Maurice) about that. Deep down, my wife hoped at the end point Carolina would come through with the same thing and we'd stay. That didn't happen."
Okay. So we've got a wife who wanted to stay in Carolina, and a player who admits he only left that team reluctantly because the money and term were better in Montreal. The question now is whether Erik Cole can find the same kind of passion for the Canadiens that he had for the Hurricanes. Will he be willing to play through pain if he's only there for the money? Will he crash Cam Ward's crease with the same vigour with which he's crashed Carey Price's if the teams should meet in a do-or-die game?
Canadiens fans hope professionalism on Cole's part is enough to provide the inspiration he needs. Four years and $18-million is a big commitment on the part of the Habs. What they've gained with that commitment is still a mystery. After all, it's been proven in the past, and even with this player, that a team can buy a guy's service, but it can't buy his heart.