Niyo: Cole's size, speed fill gap for Wings

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Erik Cole arrived with an apology, conveying the regrets of his old teammate, Jamie Benn, to his new one, Henrik Zetterberg, for that punch to the head in Dallas that knocked the Detroit captain out of the lineup 10 days ago.

But then Cole jokingly asked for an apology himself Tuesday, still a bit winded after his first practice in Detroit following the deadline-day trade that brought him here.

A reporter referenced his long career and mentioned the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals, when his Carolina team ran headlong into Detroit's Big Red Machine, and Cole quickly interrupted, saying, "Oh, thanks for that reminder. My dog died that year, too. You want to talk about it?"

He was teasing, of course. And the 36-year-old native of upstate New York made it clear Tuesday he needs no reminders about what it means to be playing hockey here in Detroit.

"I've seen what this city can be like and what this building can be like in the playoffs," said Cole, who was a rookie in 2002, part of the beloved "BBC Line" that led the Hurricanes to the Finals. "It's a great atmosphere and just so much fun. It's the best time of year to be playing hockey, into the springtime and playing your best and getting on a roll. Those types of runs, Stanley Cup playoff runs, are so much fun and memorable.

"A lot of these guys have been through those experiences. And this organization, year in and year out, they're always in the playoffs competing. So I'm excited to be part of it."

And if this is to be one of those runs for the Red Wings, chances are he'll be a big part of it. Because what Cole brings is something this team was lacking up front: A physical presence with size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and speed, a winger who'll create space and occasionally a little havoc as well.

"You've seen him: He's like a bull out there," said defenseman Brendan Smith, whose brother, Reilly, was Cole's first linemate after he joined the Stars at the deadline two years ago.

An easy call

Cole's not the same player he was a decade ago, before Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik nearly ended his career with a broken neck in 2006. Or even when he scored 35 goals in his first year in Montreal after signing a big free agent deal there in 2011.

But Cole, who had scored 18 goals in 57 games this season despite averaging less than 15 minutes a night, was probably the best available power forward at the deadline. And for a team that isn't counting on Johan Franzen (concussion) playing again this spring, this deal — giving up a couple mid-level prospects and a second-round pick for Cole and a conditional pick — was an easy call.

Same goes for Mike Babcock, who immediately penciled him in at right wing on Zetterberg's line with Justin Abdelkader — "Yeah, there's definitely worse places to end up," Cole laughed — and on the No. 1 power-play unit as well.

"Hopefully, I can do some good things out there and make the best of it," he added, noting it may take some time getting used to the pace of Babcock's practices.

For now, though, the best thing he can do is just to play his game. That was the message Babcock delivered to both of his new vets — Cole and 38-year-old defenseman Marek Zidlicky — in his office Tuesday morning.

"I sat down with the two of them and I said exactly this, "Picture who you are in your mind's eye and the player you are and just do that. That's why we acquired you,'" Babcock said.

'Work in progress'

There's plenty of time to figure out the nuances of the on-ice structure for the Red Wings before the playoffs start, and little worry that two players who have played more than 1,700 NHL games (for seven teams) will have trouble fitting in.

"I don't want them thinking when they get on the ice I want them playing," Babcock continued. "It'll show over time. We didn't bring them here to change them. We got them here so they could do what they do, and we'll figure out a way to make it work for them. That's going to be work in progress. I'm excited about the guys. As long as they're competitive, everything will work out fine."

And there won't be any need for apologies.