Perhaps no player symbolized the 2010-11 Carolina Hurricanes more than Erik Cole. Largely written off at the start of the year, the Canes and Cole heated up in tandem, and by the end of the season it was simply assumed that Cole would be riding shotgun on Eric Staal's right wing. Not bad for a guy who only had 16 points last season and wound up with 52 points, his highest total since notching 61 in 2006-07.
The downside to this great season is what might loom in free agency. After earning $3 million this season, will Jim Rutherford have the resources to retain Cole's services?
The Good: Cole quite literally had a career year. He led the Hurricanes with nine game-winning goals, tied for fourth in the NHL, and aside from Eric Staal's eight no one else on the team was within six (!) of Cole's total. His jersey-matching 26 goals were his most since 2006-07, and rebounded him from a two-year lost period where he only managed 29 over two seasons, and all but four of those goals came at even strength, the 22 ESG coming in second to Jeff Skinner's 25. Cole was also the only player with more than one overtime goal, winning two home games against Atlanta (January 9 and February 5) with goals in the extra session.
Cole was the model of consistency, especially after the All-Star Break when he went pointless in consecutive games only twice. He played every game for the first time in his NHL career, no small feat for a player who's been through as many injuries as he has - and it's noteworthy that Cole was third behind Staal and Cory Stillman among Canes forwards in average ice time per game at 18:27/game. Cole wasn't afraid to throw his body around, either, his 225 hits leading the team in the category of Hits By People Not Named Tuomo Ruutu (who led overall by a mile, with 309). While not exactly known as a defensive specialist, Cole nonetheless led the Hurricanes with 65 takeaways.
The Bad: As Cole went on the power play, so went the Canes' fortunes or lack thereof. Cole only earned eight points with the man advantage, and following an assist in Tampa on February 12 he only added one point, a goal on March 25 (also against the Lightning). Not coincidentally, this was the same time of year that the Canes couldn't hit the broad side of a barn on the power play. Honestly, though, that's about all that went wrong for Cole this year.
The Money: Cole was in the final year of a contract paying him $3 million this season. As he's proven in two tours of duty with the team, Carolina is a nearly perfect fit for Cole, but his production this season will likely earn him a healthy raise. At 32 years old, Cole is likely looking at his last big contract this season, so his re-signing with the Hurricanes is largely dependent upon whether Cole will take a hometown discount to stay. Cole is a pure winger, unlike players such as Ruutu, Skinner and Jussi Jokinen who can play either center or wing, and that inflexibility (which is probably too harsh a word, but I can't think of a better one) may keep his price down a bit.
However, Cole is a fan favorite, and his chemistry with Staal is probably the best of any two-man combination on the roster. Rutherford will have some decisions to make, but one would think that if both parties agree that having Cole on the roster at the right price is beneficial to both sides, they'll work a deal out and Cole will re-sign. All bets are off, though, if some team overpays for Cole, which given the season he just finished could easily happen.