Montreal Signs Cole, Budaj

For the Montreal Canadiens, the most important piece of off-season business was completed well before July 1.  Andrei Markov, the team’s top defenseman, was signed to a three year pact despite missing the vast majority of last season due to injury.  Markov’s played every single game of his NHL career with the Canadiens, and was sorely missed last season.

With that task out of the way, the Canadiens had a rather busy day, losing a few players to other teams (most notably Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Halpern, who both signed with Washington) while adding a pair of unrestricted free agents: former Carolina Hurricanes winger Erik Cole, as well as goalie Peter Budaj, who last tended net for the Colorado Avalanche.

Erik Cole is obviously the key signing here, and it is not especially difficult to divine the reasons for his signing.  Mocking the smurfs that take up key positions in the Montreal forward corps has become something of a tradition for sportswriters and fans alike, and Cole adds a big, physical winger who can play the game to the mix.

The dollar figures and term are of special interest, however.  Cole will turn 33 early in 2011-12, and has had his share of struggles and injury over the past couple of seasons – 2008-09 saw him show poorly in Edmonton and over 18 playoff games with Carolina, while he was limited to just 40 games in 2009-10.  2010-11 was better, as Cole played in all 82 games for the first time in his career; I don’t think there’s much doubt that Montreal’s management must have found that reassuring.

Still, four years is a long time for a player of his age with that injury history, and a $4.5 million cap hit is not an inconsequential number over that span.  The fact that the Canadiens also gave Cole a no-trade clause during negotiations further increases the risk of this signing.

If Cole can maintain the form he showed this season without having Eric Staal up the middle, it will be a big win for Montreal.  He played in a power-vs.-power role for the Hurricanes, wasn’t sheltered with an inordinate amount of offensive zone starts, and put up a superb five-on-five scoring number.  That, in a nutshell, is what every successful season for Cole looks like going back as far as we have data – he’s a strong even-strength winger who can play against anyone and still find a way to contribute.

One of the other things Cole is good at is drawing penalties.  Last season he drew twice as many infractions as he was called for, and that fits with his general pattern – he’s a smart, disciplined player that forces defensemen to stray into illegality to stop him.

One thing not to expect from Cole is power-play production.  He was weak in that area last season, worse than weak the year before, and despite the fact that he keeps getting minutes he simply isn’t an effective power play option; he routinely trailed every other forward on the Hurricanes in points/60 in that role.  He’s being paid for his tremendous five-on-five play.

Peter Budaj was Montreal’s other signing, and I’ll admit that my nose crinkled a little when I heard that they had decided to employ him as the backup for Carey Price – particularly given that he was signed to a two-year, $1.15 million per season contract.  Budaj’s 242-game (yes, seriously, 242 games) NHL career has seen him routinely post save percentages between 0.895 and 0.905; he had one nice 15-game run as a backup to Craig Anderson but outside of that stretch he’s been an AHL-level goaltender in an NHL uniform.  As Pat Hickey of the Montreal Gazette (linked above) put it, Budaj “gave the impression that he didn’t waste any time accepting the team’s offer.”

All in all, July 1 was a middling day for the Canadiens.  They lost a few useful pieces, acquired a quality even-strength winger while making significant salary and term commitments, and added a replacement level backup to hold the door on the bench open for Carey Price.