The Montreal Canadiens have been in need of scoring for many years. Many fans may say that the team has been without a sniper since Stephane Richer was traded, but those fans may overlook former team captain Max Pacioretty, who was a 30-goal-or-more threat during his tenure in Montreal.
That doesn’t change the needs the Canadiens have in this area — adding scoring is a must. General manager Marc Bergevin has his work cut out for him as not many teams are willing to part ways with talented youth with a scoring touch.
This is why the NHL Draft is essential to the improvement of the franchise. The selection of right winger Cole Caufield at the 2019 Draft in Vancouver may have helped solve the question of who will be the Habs’ next scoring threat.
Caufield entered his draft season toughed as one of the top scoring threats of his draft class. He’s seen as a top-five talent in the 2019 The Hockey Writer mock draft for good reason. He set the United States National Training and Development Program (USNTDP) scoring record with 72 goals in one season, breaking the old record of 55 held by Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews. Caufield’s 126 goals as a member of the USNTDP sets the new record for most goals for the program, beating out Phil Kessel’s old mark of 123 goals.
Caufield’s USNTDP coach John Wroblewski told NHL.com:
Purest hands I’ve seen, for sure. When he gets a puck, he’s able to prep and snap it so quickly, and it’s a laser every time. He’s so sneaky with the way he uses his body because there’s a lot of core strength that he uses to his advantage with that smaller frame.
The common storylines on Caufield entering the draft were two-fold. The first was to discuss his lack of size. At 5-foot-7 and 163 pounds, his size was, and still is, seen as a detriment to any possible NHL success he could have, even in today’s NHL that places more emphasis on skating and skill rather than size.
There is no denying that size is still a factor at the highest level, even if it is no longer a major factor. The second story line was that his numbers were inflated due to playing with the USNTDP wunderkind center, Jack Hughes, who was the consensus first-overall selection for his draft class. However, as skillful as Hughes is, a playmaker can’t be as effective without a shooter, something Hughes speaks to when asked by Mike Morreale.
He’s probably the purest scorer of this draft class, it’s not like he overpowers goalies with his shot, it’s that he has a knack for scoring, so it’s really easy to play with a guy like that. You put it on his stick and it usually ends up in the back of the net, so no complaints playing with him.Jack Hughes
These two factors likely played a key role in Caufield sliding out of the top 10 and landing in Bergevin’s lap at 15 overall, despite his impressive offensive numbers. Yet, with his commitment to the University of Wisconsin under the tutelage of former NHL player and head coach, Tony Granato, there wasn’t much concern with the environment for his development.
The next challenge for Caufield was how he would fare playing against older, much larger players in the NCAA — a challenge he proved was well within his means. Despite Wisconsin’s disappointing season, losing in the first round of their playoffs, Caufield provided 19 goals and 36 points in 36 games while earning more ice time as coach Granato began to trust his defensive play. His play over the course of the season was a key piece in helping to lead his team into the playoffs.
Caufield became the first Wisconsin Badger in decades to win a scoring championship.
He was also named the NCAA Big 10 Conference Freshman of the Year.
The black mark on that season had to be his production of only one goal at the 2020 World Junior Championships. While an argument will be made that he was underutilized in a third-line role and asked to play a different style, the fact remains the expectation was for him to produce offensively. Despite any misuse of Caufield’s — and other teammates — skill sets, he was unable to take advantage of the few opportunities he had. He will need to improve upon that in the 2021 World Junior Championships if they are to be held.
Does he fit into the Canadiens’ system? The fact is the team needs a goal scorer on the right wing who can play a key role on the power play. He can be that player. The other question is, is he ready to make the leap to professional hockey? Bergevin was unusually open in an interview with Mathias Brunet of La Presse after the 2020 NHL trade deadline in which he spoke of all the prospects, but stated that:
Cole had a good year (in the NCAA), But in our eyes, he is not ready.Marc Bergevin (Mathias Brunet, La Presse, Marc Bergevin la transparence du DG)
Clearly, the organization felt it was best for Caufield to play another NCAA season. One aspect of his game that he will need to focus on is his defensive play. He already has the speed, shot and ability to find open areas on the ice to produce offensively, but to become a reliable top-six forward, he will need to be able to play defensively to help the Canadiens generate offence using their transition game. Caufield seems to have bought into that plan as he states;
I want to dominate and do the same thing, just increase my points and be a leader. I think that’s probably the biggest thing I want to improve on is becoming a guy that people can rely on in all situations. And be a voice in the locker room, too, that people look to when times aren’t so good.Cole Caufield
The hope is for Caufield to complete another season of development before joining the professional ranks, then to arrive in Montreal by the 2021-22 season and hopefully provide depth scoring before becoming an impact player.
One wrinkle in this plan would be the COVID-19 pandemic. If the NCAA does not resume play next season, Caufield has the option of going to the Canadien Hockey League (CHL) and playing there, if they hold a season. Currently, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) hold his rights. No matter which league he plays in next season, his development into an offensive weapon is important for the Canadiens’ plans to finally become a contender.