MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens were looking for a big winger with a scoring touch and feel they’ve found one in former Carolina Hurricane Erik Cole.
The Canadiens signed the six-foot-two 205-pound unrestricted free agent to a US$18 million four-year contract, with a no-trade clause, on the opening day of the NHL player market on Friday.
They also inked back-up goaltender Peter Budaj to a $2.3 million two-year deal.
Cole brings a big body and speed to a team that has a lot of smaller forwards.
“It’s a player who fills a need on this team,” said general manager Pierre Gauthier, who called Cole’s agent the instant the free agent market opened. “He’s fast, big and likes to go to the net. He’s a good complement to our finesse players.”
The right winger, who has endured major injuries in his career, is coming off a campaign in which he played all 82 games and had 26 goals and 26 assists.
The 32-year-old should help the Canadiens in even-strength play, which was a trouble spot for the club last season. Last season he dished out 225 hits and will bring that physical presence to Montreal. He had seven goals as the Hurricanes went 8-2-1 down the stretch in a failed bid for a playoff spot.
He showed himself to be a frank talker when he chatted with Montreal reporters by phone.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that the last couple of years Montreal has had a bit smaller players than a lot of other teams,” said Cole, who grew up a Canadiens fan in Oswego, N.Y. “I’m not the biggest body on the ice, but I play a harder-nosed game than some guys and try to use my skating to be a strong player, be effective against the boards and take the puck to the net.”
He will get $4.5 each season after earning $3 million in 2010-11.
Cole played nearly his entire career in Carolina, except for part of one campaign with Edmonton, but was looking to move to a team with a chance of doing well in the playoffs every year. He said the Hurricanes have good young players and a promising future, but between that and a “self-inflicted budget” would be in danger of missing the post-season.
The nine-year NHL veteran’s best full season was 2006-07 when he had 29 goals and 61 points, but he was even better the previous year when he scored 30 goals and had 59 points in only 60 games.
That season was cut short when he suffered a fractured vertebra from a hit by Pittsburgh Brooks Orpik. He returned for Game 6 of the final and helped the Hurricanes to their first Stanley Cup. That gives Montreal two players who have broken neck bones, joining Max Pacioretty who fractured a vertebra last season on a hit into a stanchion from Boston’s Zdeno Chara.
Cole said a handful of teams showed interest in signing him, but the best offer came from Montreal. Getting a no-trade clause was a bonus because “I didn’t think that was something that teams were into any more.”
Cole has 184 goals and 204 assists in 620 career games.
He was a teammate of Canadiens linemates Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta on the U.S. Olympic squad at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. A call from Gionta helped convince him to accept Montreal’s offer.
Cole was particularly effective when he played against Montreal, scoring 14 goals and 25 points in 28 games—his best against any team. Now he’s looking forward to playing for them.
“It’s my favourite building to play in,” he said. “The feeling you get going into Montreal, the passion, the city, it just has an aura about it.
“I don’t know how you can go in there and not play well. It’s a passion that can drive the team north or south.”
His scoring is usually balanced between home and road games, but he joked: “Now I’m going to be such a homer.”
The Canadiens have only four skaters left from two years ago, when the roster got a major overhaul with the free agent signings of Gionta, Gomez, Michael Cammalleri and Hal Gill. The evolution of the club since then allowed Gauthier to target free agents for specific needs.
A likely scenario would see Cole play on right wing of one of the top scoring lines with centre Tomas Plekanec and Cammalleri, dropping Andrei Kostitsyn to third-line duty.
The Canadiens now have 19 players under contract with $8.3 million of space left on the $64.3 million salary cap. They are expected to sign at least one more forward for their third or fourth line.
Gauthier said he wanted a younger goaltender who has shown he can play in the NHL and who he could sign for more than one year when he made his offer to Budaj. He will also sign a third-string goaltender, who will likely play at AHL Hamilton.
Alex Auld, their back-up goalie last season, signed with Ottawa, while defenceman James Wisniewski inked a six-year $33 million deal with Columbus, who also signed their third-string goalie Curtis Sanford.
They also saw defenceman Roman Hamrlik, who they made a one-year offer to, ink a two-year pact with Washington. Forward Benoit Pouliot signed with Boston.
The 28-year-old Budaj is to earn $1.1 million next season and $1.2 million in 2012-13.
In 45 games for Colorado last season Budaj posted what he admitted were weak numbers—a 15-21-4 record on a non-playoff team, with a 3.20 goals-against average and .895 save percentage. In 242 games over six seasons, he is 101-91-27 with a 2.83 average and a .902 save percentage.
In four career playoff games, he has a whopping 6.67 goals-against and a .750 save percentage.
The only Canadien he knows is winger Mathieu Darche, his former teammate with the AHL’s Hershey Bears who wrote on Twitter that Budaj is a “great guy and a very good goalie.”
But Budaj is a friend of Jaroslav Halak, a fellow Slovak who battled Price for the No. 1 job in 2009-10 before Canadiens management traded him to St. Louis for Lars Eller and Ian Schultz.
“He told me Carey was a great competitor and a great goalie, but nothing specific,” said Budaj.
He will go from getting plenty of work in Colorado, where he was a regular starter for much of his stay, to getting very little in Montreal. Auld got into only 16 games behind the workhorse Price.
“I know the situation and that (Price) had an amazing year last year,” he said. “I’ll focus on what I can do and how I can contribute. When I get a chance to play I’ll try to be ready and play the best I can.”
He called it a “huge relief” to sign on the first day of free agency.
“I can’t explain how excited I am,” he said.
Budaj’s stay in Colorado ended just after the Avs acquired goalies Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere.