RALEIGH — Particularly after Erik Cole's brief, unimpressive tenure with the Edmonton Oilers, the conventional wisdom around the NHL was that he was most at home in a Carolina Hurricanes uniform.
Perhaps, though, that conventional wisdom was wrong. Perhaps he was most at home on the road in a Carolina Hurricanes uniform, as long as that road venue was Montreal's Bell née Molson Centre.
Cole, who grew up in Oswego, N.Y., and went to school at Clarkson, across the border in upstate New York and not too far from Montreal, always saved his best for the Canadiens. He has 25 points in 28 regular-season games against the Habs, and another seven in that six-game playoff series in 2002. If he'd been able to play in 2006, who knows what the numbers would look like.
If you can't stop him, sign him - and Montreal went to extraordinary lengths to do so, giving a four-year contract to a guy who has never played four straight full seasons. The Canadiens were willing to give him $4.5 million per season, while the Hurricanes stuck to the $3 million Cole made last year until Friday afternoon, when they started creeping upward.
"It was the best offer that we had, better than Carolina unfortunately," Cole told Canadian sports network TSN. "But it's an exciting opportunity to go to Montreal. It's a playoff team every year and a team that can vie for the Stanley Cup, so I'm excited."
Both before the Hurricanes traded him to the Oilers on this day in 2008 and after they got him back less than a year later, Cole has been a big part of the organization and its greatest successes, but is this the worst thing in the world for the Hurricanes? Maybe not.
When Cole's healthy, he's as much of a game-changer as any winger in the league. Until the night Brooks Orpik broke Cole's neck in 2006, there may not have been a better power forward in the NHL. But he hasn't played at that level very often since, only getting back there with any consistency last season.
He's a talent, but he's a risk, too.
His departure opens doors for the young players we've heard so much about but seen very little. There was a spot open last year, but Jeff Skinner swept in and scooped it up ahead of Zach Boychuk and Drayson Bowman and Zac Dalpe and company.
While the Hurricanes will explore trade options for replacing Cole, and they were already pursuing Alexei Ponikarovsky even before Cole signed elsewhere, that void may best be filled within the organization.
At some point, these kids are going to have to stand up and claim a spot. At some point, the Hurricanes are going to have to take away the Charlotte safety net and see what they've got.
"There comes that point for everybody, and this may be the opening that they 're looking for," Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford acknowledged, although he cautioned that, as was the case with Skinner, the Hurricanes would try to keep them away from top defensive pairings.
"We lost a good player that we wanted to keep, but at the same time, usually what happens is it opens the door for somebody else, usually a younger player," Rutherford said. "The Boychuks, the Dalpes, the Bowmans, if they can come in and get confidence and get off to a good start, it could give them a good opportunity."
In the eternal shuffling of Carolina prospects, Dalpe currently appears to be atop the pyramid, but training camp will have more to say about that than anything else.
Cole is gone, to wear the uniform of the team he tormented for so long, and that means it's time for the kids to make a claim for a Carolina uniform of their own.