“He brings a little more size to their top 6…he’s having a bounce-back year” – Pierre LeBrun, on Detroit trading for Dallas winger Erik Cole
A friend of mine is a massive Detroit Red Wings fan, and can make very little sense of the trade they made today. Cole is supposedly going to be a replacement for the injured Johan Franzen. On the surface, this makes sense: Cole has a reputation as a physical winger. He hits, he can score and he’s a team player with a winning pedigree. I’m not so sure that his reputation is warranted anymore, and I plan to use some visualizations from war-on-ice.com to assess the current validity of his reputation.
This is a 20-game rolling tally of Cole’s hits this season. Cole’s physicality has dropped off even as the season has went on. Although it isn’t necessarily the case, I think it’s completely reasonable to say that this is due to Cole’s aging body (he is 36 now, after all) not being able to keep up with the same level of physicality as he once was able to. (A more in-depth look at Cole’s career hits shows that he has generally been in decline since moving to Montreal in 2011; this season actually saw his physical game return to previous levels, but as has been the case in each of Cole’s last 3 full seasons, there has been a significant dropoff in the 2nd half of the season).
I’ve combined these two to give a more dramatic visualization. The top chart is Cole’s 20-game rolling shooting percentage, the bottom is Cole’s 20-game rolling scoring chances (a definition of “scoring chance” can be found here). We can clearly see that as the season has progressed, Cole has been taking less shots (and/or shots of worse quality), yet his shooting percentage has consistently increased, peaking at over 30%. Of course, there is one way to look at this: the massive discrepancy between Cole’s chances and his conversion of those chances — particularly before the new year — suggests that he’s due to regress to some degree. However, we also need to look at straight averages here: Cole is a career 13% shooter, who is shooting 18% this year. A 36-year old shooting 40% better (5% increase over 13% average) than his career average seems a little too good to be true, no? Cole’s due for another scoring slump.
You didn’t think I was going to try to use stats to disprove the “team player” thing, did you? That’s above what statistics can explain. And for that same reason, nobody should take my words as fact. Cole’s production won’t necessarily slow down in Detroit. Changing teams does weird things to players, things which basically require perfect information to accurately describe and predict. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have perfect information. What I can tell you with the information I have is that Erik Cole is past his previous levels of physicality, and it’s unlikely he continues to score at the pace he has been this season.
However, it is still possible that he does continue to score at this pace. Detroit is all about creating scoring chances, and focus on that rather than simply creating shots (Mike Babcock said this himself: “Basically what we do is we’re not as much into shots as we are into [scoring] chances. That’s what we believe. We believe in chances”). As a good possession team with that focus on creating scoring chances, Detroit is probably the best team for Cole to go to in order to maintain his current scoring numbers. As for the physicality, he could potentially return to previous levels. In his career, Cole has been traded mid-season twice, and both times his hitting numbers increased after the move. Despite his age, it could possibly be the case this time as well. A new team can motivate a player like that.