The excitement was palpable when the Montreal Canadiens selected Cole Caufield 15th overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. General manager Marc Bergevin was handed a home run pick when the best pure goalscorer of the draft class fell to him.
Considered a top-10 talent, Caufield slid several spots due to his size. At 5-foot -7 and 163 pounds, scouts were tentative. That said, his lethal shot and 86 goals in 71 games at all levels of his draft year demonstrated something that Habs scouts coveted: a talent for scoring.
College Hockey Career
After he was drafted, Caufield and Habs management agreed that going to the University of Wisconsin to join the Badgers program, coached by former NHLer Tony Granato, would be best for his development.
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Granato, was formerly head coach of the Colorado Avalanche and assistant coach with both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings between 2002 and 2016. He also played 14 seasons in the NHL between 1988 and 2001 for the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks.
Granato’s experience in developing players at the professional level, and as a once diminutive NHL winger during his 774-game career, put him in an excellent position to help develop Caufield’s rare talents and help him make the jump to the professional ranks.
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In his freshman season at Wisconsin, despite a dismal team record, Caufield didn’t disappoint. He scored 19 goals and 34 points in his first 36 games, to win the Big Ten Conference’s scoring title. His 24 points in Big Ten play made him the first Badger to hold sole possession of a league scoring title.
His level of success has made many wonder if he is already capable of moving to the next level.
Professional or Major Junior Path
Theoretically, Caufield could sign his entry-level contract (ELC) and join the Canadiens. If he did, his already stellar NCAA career would come to an end.
The Badgers still have games to play this season as they will face off against the 11th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in the opening round of the playoffs. Despite a solid 4-1-1 record to end the season, the odds are against them as they will face a top team in the conference. Their season could be over as soon as Mar. 9.
If their season does end that soon, Caufield could either join Montreal to end the season or, more likely, the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket to help their playoff push. Some would like to see him join the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, who hold his CHL rights, but the deadline to add players has already passed. Also, moving to major junior could be considered a step back, despite the advantages of learning to play a more professional schedule.
Despite his NCAA success, there were questions about his play after his performance with Team USA at the 2020 World Junior Championships. He only scored one goal in five games and had difficulty earning the trust of head coach Scott Sandelin, also the head coach of Wisconsin rival, the University of Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team. Team USA suffered a disappointing loss in the quarterfinals after many predicted them to medal.
Canadiens Need Patience
Some members of the Montreal media, who feed off a vocal fanbase, are already calling Caufield and Jesperi Kotkaniemi draft busts, but that has more to do with personal agendas than it does with the players and their progression.
Patience is a virtue, but it is in short supply in Montreal. Perhaps it is the team’s history of winning that is wearing on fans as the team struggles through yet another season. Perhaps it is because some fans can no longer stand having Bergevin remain as GM and can’t see past the man to honestly criticise his plan. No matter, patience is in short supply in Montreal amongst the fanbase.
However, that vocal group of fans and media doesn’t seem to be affecting management’s decisions in regards to their prospects. Kotkaniemi struggled this season and was sent down to Laval, where he is regaining his confidence and has 11 points in 11 games. Bergevin also recently laid out his plan for the team’s youth in a candid interview with Mathias Brunet of La Presse (translated from French):
“Cole Caufield is having a good year, but in our eyes he is not ready. We will make the decision at the end of his season. If he really wants to leave college we won’t force him to stay, we will work with him, but our recommendation to him is to stay in Wisconsin. That doesn’t signify any disappointment on our part in his long term progression. That being said, it is possible that he joins Laval next season, but that will still be difficult.”Marc Bergevin
No matter who is at the helm of the Canadiens, Bergevin or his successor, the decision to allow prospects like Caufield to ripen in the lower leagues as they develop their skills and grow into their bodies is the right one. All players are different and some need a little more time to improve their game.
Playing an extra season in a lower league doesn’t make a player a bust, teams like Detroit were highly touted for their approach to using their minor league systems to develop their players for several seasons before putting their prospects into an NHL lineup.
Caufield is not NHL ready yet, Bergevin confirmed that in his interview with La Presse, and playing in Wisconsin is ideal for him to continue his development. If Caufield’s production were to take a step back playing in Laval, the pressure from the fanbase to be a dominant player at the AHL level right away could be detrimental.
For this build from within plan that Bergevin has set forth, prospect development will be vital. Not just for him to keep his job, but also for Montreal to finally have a contending hockey team to cheer for again.