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High-paid Cole OK with third-line role

TORONTO -- When the Montreal Canadiens shelled out $18 million on a four-year contract for winger Erik Cole on July 1, we’re guessing an opening-night assignment on the third line three months later was probably not the plan.

Don’t know too many third-line wingers earning $6 million this season.

Yes, Habs fans, we know, the Canadiens are going with a “top nine” forward approach this season. It’s not top six and bottom six like many teams. It’s not a prototypical third line Cole finds himself on. They plan to have three lines that will score.

“We’re trying to spread our offense,” head coach Jacques Martin said Thursday after the morning skate. “We’re trying to be better at five-on-five play. We’re hoping to get more production that way out of our three lines.’’

Hey, it could work. But we’re still not sure when Cole signed on the dotted line that he ever thought he’d be starting the season with David Desharnais and Mathieu Darche. Not that Cole is complaining; far from it.

“Whatever [Martin] thinks is going to give us the best chance to win is fine by me,’’ Cole said Thursday morning. “If it takes me playing in a third-line role as you guys like to say, that’s completely fine with me.”

And Cole looks at the assignment differently than we do.

“Sometimes people look at it from the wrong perspective,” said Cole. “You’re looking at it like, ‘Oh no, he’s playing on the third line.’ If I’m playing on the third line, that means I’m playing against the 5-6 d-pair, right? I’m ok with that. So there’s certain things that you guys don’t see it the way players do. Maybe sometimes even players feel it’s a slight. But I don’t think so. I think that within our top nine, I don’t feel like playing with David Desharnais is a bad thing. He’s very crafty with the puck. He’s highly skilled. He’s tough on pucks and he’s real effective.’’

Desharnais is indeed a shifty center with great wheels. He’s an underrated player. Lars Eller (shoulder) can also improve the line when he returns.

It’s also a long season. More than ever, coaches in the NHL put their lines in the blender whenever there’s a bump in the road or some injuries. At some point this season, Cole will have his turn with either centers Tomas Plekanec or Scott Gomez on the top two lines. It might even happen by the second period Thursday night if the Habs fall behind.

But because it’s opening night, we tend to make more about the first version of the lineup. And seeing Cole on the third line just makes you take notice. What also may be happening here is that Martin needs to grow more trust in Cole before he elevates his role.

In other words, if Cole shows Martin he can play 200 feet on a consistent basis and show a commitment to both ends of the ice, that’s going to improve his chances to move up in the lineup.

Cole couldn’t care less Thursday. He was about to play his first career regulation-season game for the 24-time Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens -- in Toronto, no less.

“It’s my first experience with the rivalry; should be fun,” he smiled.