With two years remaining on his contract after this season at a salary cap hit of $4.5 million a year, Cole knew the Montreal Canadiens would one day need to trade him with some of their younger players up for new deals before his expired.
But it was also the length of his deal that made Cole so attractive to the Dallas Stars.
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin swung his first major trade Tuesday when he sent Cole to the Stars in exchange for former Canadien Michael Ryder and Dallas' third-round pick at the 2013 NHL Draft.
Cole had to waive his limited no-trade clause in order for the deal to happen, and after discussing it with his wife, he decided Dallas was a situation that was a good fit for him under the circumstances.
"It seemed to me it was kind of a situation where if it's not this trade, then over the next few years they were going to have to find a way to move that money," Cole said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday evening. "Marc [Bergevin] and I had a discussion about it. It was either going to happen now, or it would be this summer or next season or whenever. There's a great opportunity for me in Dallas and there's a player there that I played with for many years in Carolina in Ray Whitney."
Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk said the term left on Cole's contract and the fact he plays more of a north-south, banging style than Ryder does made the trade appetizing to him, especially since the Stars had three third round picks in the upcoming draft so parting with one was less painful than usual.
"We want to be in a position to transition our younger players and put them in roles where they can be successful and comfortable and then expand into more prominent roles," Nieuwendyk said. "I think the two-year term with Erik allows us to put some of our younger players in better positions where they can be successful and help that transition."
Bergevin did mention that Cole's contract and the money left on it was a factor in acquiring Ryder, who is in the final year of a two-year contract with a cap hit of $3.5 million. But Bergevin also insisted that this was a "hockey decision" and that he expects Ryder to help a Canadiens power play that has been struggling of late.
"Nothing against Erik," Bergevin said, "but this is a guy who fills a need."
"There's a great opportunity for me in Dallas and there's a player there that I played with for many years in Carolina in Ray Whitney." -- Erik Cole on his trade to Dallas
Cole was coming off a career season after being signed to a four-year, $18 million contract as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2011 by the Canadiens previous GM Pierre Gauthier. He scored a career-high 35 goals last season with 61 points, which also matched a career-best. He formed one of the NHL's most potent lines with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, but this season did not get off to a good start offensively for him.
Cole had recently been split from Desharnais and Pacioretty and removed from the top two power play units by Canadiens coach Michel Therrien, and when he scored a goal and an assist on Saturday night against the New York Rangers it snapped a nine-game pointless streak.
However, when Cole is at his best, he is a big body with above average speed who can create turnovers off the forecheck and force defenders into taking penalties by driving the net with the puck.
"They are similar players statistically, but a different style of player," Nieuwendyk said. "[Cole] has a style that will be more beneficial to our team with how we want to play moving forward, a big body attacking the opponent."
When Nieuwendyk said statistically similar, he wasn't kidding.
Ryder had 62 points last season – one more than Cole in the same number of games – but this season he's been much more productive with 14 points in 19 games to tie for the team lead with Jamie Benn, who has played five fewer games. While Ryder actually had fewer power plays goals than Cole did last season with seven to Cole's 11, Ryder has been a consistent scorer on the power play who Bergevin described as a "sniper."
Ryder was originally drafted by the Canadiens in the eighth round in 1998 and spent the first four seasons of his career with Montreal before departing as a free agent to sign with the Boston Bruins in 2008. His final season with the Canadiens, Ryder was a healthy scratch in the playoffs after falling out of favor with then-coach Guy Carbonneau.
Few Canadiens fans were sad to see him leave at the time, even though he had scored 99 goals in 314 games with the club, but Bergevin is not the least bit concerned by that. Considering he did much the same thing in hiring Therrien as his coach, that shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
"I wasn't here when he left," Bergevin said. "But he has had success in Montreal, he had success in Boston and he had success in Dallas. I don't see why he wouldn't have success back in Montreal."
Trading away Cole's contract could allow Bergevin the leeway to re-sign Desharnais and perhaps Ryan White, who will both become restricted free agents in July. Looking ahead to this summer, Bergevin will have an additional $4.5 million to spend with the cap dropping to $64.3 million next season, leaving him with approximately $12.7 million in cap space, according to capgeek.com.
The third-round pick acquired by Bergevin improves an already rich coffer of 2013 selections left behind by Gauthier, who added second-round picks from Calgary and Nashville in trades last season. When added to the Canadiens' own picks, that gives amateur scouting director Trevor Timmins six picks in the top 90 come June.
There are only five players on the Canadiens who played with Ryder in Montreal – Carey Price, Josh Gorges, Francis Bouillon, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Markov – and at least two of them were excited by the news of his return.
"Welcome back Ryds!" Price (@CP0031) wrote on Twitter, echoing a similar message from Gorges.
However, Cole was also a popular teammate who should help those young players Nieuwendyk was talking about with the Stars.
"Good luck in Dallas," Desharnais (@DavidDesha) wrote on Twitter, "and thank you Erik."