TORONTO, ON – The Montreal Canadiens’ 2012-13 training camp opened with more than its fair share of controversies. On the very first day, media and fans were buzzing about the decision to send Scott Gomez home while he awaits a buyout and the absence of P.K. Subban who stayed at home while awaiting a new contract.
Though it has a far lesser effect on the on-ice product, also making waves were comments uttered by veteran Erik Cole about his future beyond this short season.
“I really enjoyed my time at home,” he began. “It’s coming up on a transition year for my daughter in school, so we’ll have to seriously think about things.”
“I have to understand the escrow and how much money I’ll actually have left. It’s not what I originally signed.”
Understandably, popular opinion wasn’t particularly welcoming of these comments. NHL hockey finally returns, and suddenly a player who was arguably the team’s MVP last season lets slip that he may consider retiring at season’s end. Certainly not the “Welcome back!” all were expecting.
So where do these thoughts come from? And are they credible? Cole emerged as a leader on the club last year, taking younger players under his wing off-ice while leading by example on it, setting a career high with 35 markers. All will remember Louis Leblanc‘s NHL debut for the story that leaked that it was Cole who had paid to fly the youngster’s parents down to the game (the team isn’t allowed to do it as it’s a benefit that would violate the salary cap). He served as a prime role model for Max Pacioretty, having returned from a serious neck injury of his own years ago and playing a similar kind of hardnosed crash-the-net power forward game.
In fact, Cole was the first “true” power forward the Habs had brought in for many years. After a slightly shaky start to the season, he seemed to be the exact kind of acquisition the club had hoped for, helping to turn Pacioretty and David Desharnais into first line players. But Cole’s own inspirational play wasn’t enough, and the team finished in the Eastern Conference’s basement. And that’s where things seemed to change.
At last season’s post-mortem press availability, the typically good-humoured winger appeared saddened and discouraged. It was easy to see how much he cared and how it hurt him for the team to finish with such a poor record. He was asked if – after a few weeks to get over the team’s failures – he could appreciate his own banner year statistically but coldly answered, “Probably not.”
Between his last interview last season and his first of this season, Cole was an outspoken opponent of Gary Bettman and the NHL’s lockout. He even had a batch of hats with “Puck Bettman” on them printed for himself and some friends, of course intended as a joke. But with the labour dispute settled, a sour taste remains in Cole’s mouth, as he repeated once back in training camp that the lockout “never should have happened.”
All of this is concerning and screams that a player is not in a good state of mind. At age 34, he should still have a few productive years left in him, but the style of game he plays necessitates taking a physical beating on a nightly basis, which is difficult to sustain. If he isn’t having fun in Montreal, he may value a healthy and better quality of life with his family to continuing at the NHL grind.
But is there a real risk that he’ll up and call it quits at the end of the season? The eight million dollars over the next two years of his deal say probably not. The risk to the Canadiens isn’t that he’ll leave the organization; it’s that he’ll lose his motivation altogether and become a shell of his former self. Cole is effective when he plays the way he did for games ~10-82 last season, a style that requires significant energy, grit, determination, and heart. If his heart isn’t in it, his production will drop like a rock.
How does the team prevent this situation? It’s true that Cole has been around the block and shouldn’t need “development coaching” or “counseling,” but based on the comments he has made, you would think the Habs could afford to have a member of their new player personnel group spend some time with him and talk through his frustrations. Moreover, just as a happy Cole will help the Montreal Canadiens win, winning also helps to motivate a player, and so the two could feed each other in a form of perfect storm if some of the American’s teammates can bounce back from a difficult year.
It’s an argument for “going for it.” It means if a guy like Alex Galchenyuk is one of the best 12 forwards in training camp, maybe you keep him around, even if it means burning a year of his entry level contract on a season where the Canadiens aren’t ready to contend. It means if a rookie like Brendan Gallagher or Jarred Tinordi deserves to be in Montreal over a veteran like Colby Armstrong or Tomas Kaberle, you make the room you need to for them. And it means you maybe use one of the three 2nd round picks the team holds for the coming entry draft for some immediate (but NOT short-term) help (though I’d personally still be in favour of holding on to them). Creating a winning culture will not only motivate a player like Cole, but will have a spillover effect to the rest of the team, recreating that lost winning culture that Mike Cammalleri spoke of last season and Josh Gorges described this week.
A positive team environment will only help in the progression of the next wave of Hab prospects, speeding up their development through enhanced confidence. And a happy Erik Cole can play a big role in that department, serving as a valuable mentor to other young players as he did for a player like Pacioretty.
If there’s a positive sign that maybe with activity picking up, Cole is ready to turn the page and focus on the team once again, it may have come from seeing him in just such a role at practice on Monday. Following Galchenyuk’s highlight shootout goal on Peter Budaj, he skated back to rejoin Cole and Pacioretty along the sideboards. Cole went for a fist bump, but Galchenyuk, distracted and looking away, didn’t notice. Cole left his arm extended for an awkwardly long amount of time, waiting for Galchenyuk to notice, which he eventually did. The young prospect seemed to have a good chuckle about it, while Cole had a half-smile half-sarcastically smug look on his face, as if to say, “Sheesh. Rookies.”