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The real deal

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Not everyone was thrilled when the Canadiens signed Erik Cole to a four-year contract last summer. Eighty-two games and 35 goals later, and those same critics will be spending the offseason eating their own words.

“He’s prone to injury!” complained sceptics, long before Cole ever touched down in Montreal to take his first strides as a Canadien. But by the time the last siren of the season sounded, Cole stood in the company of defenseman, Josh Gorges, as the only two Habs to have not missed a single game in 2011-12.

“His best seasons are already behind him!” griped others. But the 33-year-old winger exploded with career-highs in his first campaign as a Hab, scoring more goals than ever before and equalling his personal-best of 61 points, set with the Hurricanes in 2006-07.

“Weren’t there any better players available on the free-agent market?” further demanded the naysayers. But out of the entire crop of free agents up for grabs when the market opened in the summer of 2011, only Michael Ryder of the Dallas Stars managed to equal Cole’s furious offensive output; each winger lighting the lamp 35 times.

Statistically, it would be difficult to argue that Cole didn’t meet and exceed expectations as the Canadiens’ prized offseason acquisition. Cole’s contributions to the team, however, extended well beyond the goals and assists columns of the scoresheet. Not only was Cole able to establish himself as the team’s tough-as-nails veteran power-forward, but he also served as the perfect prototype for the similarly-styled Max Pacioretty to model the details of his game after. Along with Pacioretty and David Desharnais – who already spent part of their careers together, lighting up the AHL – Cole proved the perfect catalyst to help create the Canadiens’ most explosive line of 2011-12.

“We definitely have great chemistry together. Davey is amazing at controlling the puck and setting up plays, and Max and I both play the same kind of game. We combine well on the ice, and clearly work well as a line,” explained Cole, who potted 11 of his 35 goals on the powerplay. “We’re always talking about different plays on the bench and where we should be putting the puck – and we got better and better at doing it as the season went on.”

It wasn’t long before the Cole-Desharnais-Pacioretty line became a staple of the Canadiens’ offense, combining for more than 700 even-strength minutes together over the course of the year. By comparison, no other Habs line even broke the 200 minute mark.

“We got a lot of opportunities to play together thanks to the coaching staff. They made sure we stayed intact as a line even while they were trying a lot of different combinations everywhere else,” pointed out Cole. “It would have been easy to split us up, but we always made sure to make the most of our time playing together.”

With each member of their line cracking the 60-point-mark before the year was out, it’s a fair bet they can expect to be the focus of more than a few pregame meetings for any team facing the Habs in 2012-13.

“I’m guessing that next year we’re probably not going to be able to have the same amount of opportunities once we get a few more healthy bodies back in the lineup. We should have more depth, I hope, for at least the majority of the season,” concluded Cole. “We’re going to have to find a way to produce as much if not more, next year, with probably fewer opportunities and teams watching us a lot more closely.”

Alexandre Harvey is a writer for Translated by Justin Fragapane.

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