Erik Cole, a lifetime Carolina Hurricane and outstanding hockey player until this season, struggled mightily with the Oilers after being dealt to Edmonton in exchange for Joni Pitkanen during the 2008 offseason. Over 61 Games, he contributed a GVT of + 1.0 and a Relative Plus/Minus rating of – 3.1. As mentioned previously, Relative Plus/Minus adjusts for team strength, goaltending and special teams play. Some of the Oilers media quickly began to label Erik Cole as a bust, while others were beginning to lose hope in what looked like a promising transaction.
Suddenly, the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent saw his fortunes turn, when on March 4 the Oilers were involved in a three team deal along with the Hurricanes and the Kings that included players such as Justin Williams and Patrick O’Sullivan. Over the course of the remaining 21 Games of the season with the team that he previously spent six years with, Cole contributed more than twice as many goals above replacement level in one third of the time he spent with Edmonton. From the trade deadline to the end of the regular season, he posted a + 2.5 GVT and a + 3.5 Relative Plus/Minus rating, which made him more productive over the final quarter of the season than fellow Carolina forwards Jussi Jokinen and Rod Brind’Amour were over the course of the entire year. In comparison, since the trade deadline deal, Justin Williams has contributed + 0.5 GVT for the Los Angeles Kings and Patrick O’Sullivan has contributed – 2.0 GVT to the Edmonton Oilers.
The only category that the New York native excelled in with the Oilers was Adjusted Net Penalties, which is adjusted for the tendency of defensemen to draw more penalties than taken in order to prevent shooting opportunities for the opponent. Cole was fourth in the league in this category upon being dealt to the Oilers, a ranking that remained static through the end of the season with the Hurricanes, where he finished with a + 20 ANP rating. Immediately after the trade deadline passed, I ruled this three team deal as a win for the Edmonton Oilers. It’s still too early to say who won in the long run, but considering that the Oilers and Hurricanes were looking to add talent that could help them win now, while the Kings were adding Williams for the future, we can look at this deal from a short-term perspective. Here is a list of the Left Wingers top comparables in the Similarity Score Index:
Year Player GP G A PTS PIM GP G A PTS PIM
2003-04 Ryan Smyth 75 36 30 66 58 201 86 85 171 160
1997-98 Martin Rucinsky 73 17 17 34 50 572 132 206 338 482
1999-00 Donald Audette 76 34 45 79 76 214 59 82 141 153
1982-83 Eddie Johnstone 46 12 11 23 54 55 13 11 24 56
1981-82 Ric Seiling 75 19 22 41 41 369 63 80 143 292
1992-93 Pat Elynuik 67 13 15 28 64 137 17 24 41 131
1974-75 Joey Johnston 32 0 5 5 6 32 0 5 5 6
1959-60 Dick Duff 67 16 17 33 54 687 165 187 352 414
1970-71 Jim Pappin 64 27 21 48 38 345 144 151 305 310
1983-84 Walt Poddubny 32 5 15 20 26 343 142 189 331 327
The Similarity Score Index finds the top comparable players for the player in question, up until the current year. Ergo, this list contains Cole’s top comparables up through 2007-2008. The seasons listed above in the middle portion of the table represent the accomplishments of Cole’s top comparables the year after the Similarity Score index match. The right hand portion of the table represents the remainder of each top comparable’s career.
Previously, through three-quarters of the season, the two most comparable players going into the 2009 - 2010 season were Dick Duff and Martin Rucinsky, who both completely collapsed around their age 30 seasons. Through March 4th, the $4 million dollar forward pocketed 17 Goals, 16 Assists and 33 Points in 66 Games Played. Given Duff and Rucinsky’s numbers in comparison to the Carolina Hurricane, Cole’s 50 % quartile projection would have been approximately in the range of 16 to 19 Goals, 19 to 23 Assists, 31 to 37 Points and 60 to 70 Penalties in Minutes in 70 Games. Not as bad as many would have thought earlier in the season, but he would have been projected to be nothing more than a marginal player with a GVT around + 1.5 for the 2009-2010 campaign.
Now that the entire season is through, as well as his time with the Edmonton Oilers and possibly the Carolina Hurricanes following the postseason, we can more accurately look at Erik Cole’s projections. At the end of the regular season, Cole posted 18 Goals, 24 Assists, 42 Points and 73 Penalties In Minutes in 80 Games Played. It’s obvious that Cole’s production increased significantly in his brief time spent with the Hurricanes this year.
Take a look at the table and you’ll notice that one new player stands out as Erik Cole’s 2009-2010 top comparable, save Penalties In Minutes: former first round pick and Buffalo Sabre legend Ric Seiling. Right Winger Rick Seiling played in the NHL for ten seasons, nine of which were in Buffalo and will probably remain known as the player taken one selection ahead of Hall of Famer Mike Bossy. At the age of 26, Seiling posted a line of 78 Games Played, 13 Goals, 22 Assists, 35 Points and 42 Penalties In Minutes. Just like Dick Duff and Martin Rucinsky, Seiling was essentially done by the time he reached age 30.
While Cole has improved his productivity, and is significantly faster on the ice than Seiling ever was, his long term career still doesn’t look any more promising than it did earlier in the season. Other than durability for the following year, nothing has changed in the projection. Aaron Schatz, the head of Football Outsiders, always mentions that each player’s statistics and KUBIAK projections should be viewed in light of the player’s team and the system that team utilizes (i.e. west coast offense, shotgun offense, etc.).
Perhaps the system used in Carolina optimizes Erik Cole’s value and he'll end up outperforming his projection. If Erik Cole played with the Carolina Hurricanes for the entire season, then Ryan Smyth begins to look like an excellent comparable, though Cole would most likely remain short on Goals. Ryan Smyth, at age 32, is still a very productive player who has been counted on for 30 + Goals, 30 + Assists, 60 + Points and 50-60 Penalties In Minutes in 70 to 80 Games Played. This is a bit of a stretch, but then again, going into this season only having played in the Carolina Hurricane’s system, Cole’s top comparable was Ryan Smith. The better bet is for Cole’s production to land somewhere between the 2003-2004 production of Ryan Smith and the 1981-1982 contributions of Ric Seiling. Posting 24 Goals, 30 Assists, 50 Points, 76 Penalties In Minutes in 75 Games Played for the 2009-2010 season is a good ballpark estimate for Cole’s 50 % quartile projection.
As Rob Vollman has pointed out, playoff performances that differ significantly from regular season performances correlate well with performances in the following regular season. Considering that Cole has only 2 Points and 0 Goals in the postseason so far after a promising end to the regular season, his projection could end up leaning more towards Seiling’s numbers than Smyth's. Regardless, Erik Cole has been a powerful force down the stretch and has made the Carolina Hurricanes the clear winner of this three team trade deadline deal in the short run. Are the Carolina Hurricanes the long-term winners of this deal? Well, that remains to be seen.
Andrew Rothstein is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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