Montreal Canadiens’ prospect Cole Caufield could get his wish of playing professional hockey granted sooner than previously thought. With the NCAA still undecided on whether they are going to play hockey in 2020-21 or not, Caufield could find himself signing an entry-level contract (ELC) as early as this offseason.
As of now, only the Ivy League colleges have canceled all sports – so far, the NCAA has canceled just fall sports apart from football, which still leaves the door open for hockey. With the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the United States, however, there is still a solid chance hockey will be canceled. If the NCAA season is indeed canceled, the Canadiens will need to make a big decision on where they want one of their top prospects to play.
Just to be clear, no, I’m not talking about the Canadian Hockey league (CHL) – yet. Right now, the rules in the NCAA state that if a player participates in any type of league that is considered professional – which the CHL is according to the NCAA – then that player forfeits all NCAA eligibility. Caufield’s junior hockey rights belong to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), which is one of the three leagues that make up the CHL.
The NCAA is now allowing its players to play away from their college teams while staying enrolled at their schools. What this means is that Caufield can play in the United States Hockey League (USHL), Canadian Junior A hockey, or the European junior leagues, if he chooses to do so.
The issue with the USHL, Junior A, and the European junior leagues is that they would be considered a major step backward in Caufield’s development because he would be playing with and against players of lesser talent and skill. All of these junior leagues, although good in their own right, are lesser leagues compared to the NCAA. Having him play in any of them would not do anything to enhance his development and help him improve his game.
OHL – Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Caufield was previously selected by Sault Ste. Marie in the 12th round of the OHL Priority Draft. In order to play there – as of this writing – the Canadiens would have to sign him to his ELC and assign him to the Greyhounds. If the OHL season goes forward as planned, then the Soo could be hosting next season’s Memorial Cup. Teams that host the Cup are automatically in the tournament and usually try to stack their team in an effort to compete and win against the champions of the CHL’s three leagues.
Caufield would greatly help the Soo in their quest for a Memorial Cup championship. Playing for the Soo may or may not be a step forward, depending on which league you consider to be a superior league. CHL teams generally have more NHL talent, but the NCAA teams play more of an NHL-type system, with more polished players. Playing in the OHL would be akin to a side step in his development, but would still help him move forward.
Playing Pro With the Laval Rocket
Caufield could also jump right to the pros and play with the Laval Rocket, the Canadiens’ American Hockey League affiliate. Playing in the AHL would allow him to work with Joel Bouchard, the Rocket’s head coach, and learn the finer points of the pro game. Bouchard has shown through his time in Laval that he is good at getting the best out of young players and can help improve all parts of their game.
The big issue with Caufield playing in the AHL is his safety. The league has a lot of players who will never make the NHL and they play hard and do whatever it takes to win or get an edge in the game. He is not a big forward – he’s not even medium-sized – so he would have to be well-protected in the league, or injuries could be a significant factor.
A Spot with the Big Club
All things considered, there is even an outside chance that Caufield could make the Canadiens. Let’s not get too excited, though, as this is a very remote possibility – general manager Marc Bergevin has said himself that Caufield has a lot to learn before he’s ready for the NHL.
Caufield still needs to put in a lot of work, and the NHL at this point should be a last resort. If the Canadiens truly want him to develop properly, then everyone’s best bet would be for him to either join the OHL or the AHL. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. In the OHL, he can flourish amongst players his own age and younger, while in the AHL, he can really work on the things he needs to make him more NHL-ready. Either way, both leagues will help him develop into a better player.