Is Habs’ Erik Cole The Best Free-Agent Signing Of The Year?

Much has been made of the questionable choices made by former Montreal Canadiens general manager, Pierre Gauthier, and fans absolutely rejoiced at the news of his firing last Thursday, but there is a near-flawless diamond among the rough moves that he made this year: Erik Cole.

This season, the 6′ 2″, 205 pound forward is having a career year in goals, with 32, and is eighteenth in the league in that category. Ten of those goals came on the power-play, and this is on a Habs team with the third-worst power-play percentage in the league.

One could argue that so far, in terms of point production, Michael Ryder to the Dallas Stars (62 points in 80 games) was the best free-agent signing this year (Greg Wyshynski actually speculated, back in July, on who would be a better signing of the two). This is fair to say, but the real genius of the Cole signing is not in how well he has produced personally, which he has, but in how desperately this team needed him, and how perfectly he has complemented them.

Cole’s inclusion on this team has single-handedly helped author two sensational stories that have silver-lined an appalling Habs season: Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais. The phenomenal resurgence of Pacioretty (30 goals following a broken vertebra), and the unlikely emergence of Desharnais (29th in the NHL in assists) can both largely be attributed to Cole being on their line for the better part of the year. His electrifying acceleration, his size, and his veteran calmness are just a few of the things that have complimented both of these players in ways that no one – including themselves – would have expected . . . Pacioretty has even said in a few occasions that he is trying to model his game after Cole.

Then there is his strength and toughness . . .

In the feisty Northeast Division, which includes their top rivals in the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, the Canadiens have been the weakest link physically for years; they get trampled on. It’s been a long time since Habs fans have had the pleasure of watching a player like Cole, who not only has the guts to crash the net, but often finishes on the chances he gets there. As a forward, he leads the team in hits by far, with 183, which has also been lacking in Montreal. He’s a goal-scorer with grittiness that really upgrades this team in the physicality department; the Bruins do not push him around.

“It’s a player who fills a need on this team,” Gauthier told TSN back in July, after announcing the singing of Cole. An understatement if there ever was one, and he was very right this time, as the Habs have just simply not posessed a player of Cole’s qualities in far too long. Cole is 33, and is here for three more years at $4.5 million, but he is worth every penny. It’s too bad that the Habs won’t get to take advantage of Cole’s extensive playoff experience (which includes a cup win with Carolina in ’06), because it would be great to see him possibly elevate his game even further. But there is always next year and fortunately, after this organizational-facelift of an off-season, he will still be here.

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