Since he was drafted 15th overall by the Montreal Canadiens at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Cole Caufield has been considered an important piece of the franchise’s future. That became evident during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Since then, he has had highs and lows in his young NHL career and being part of a rebuilding team that is aiming to get younger and more skilled, the 22-year-old winger is now even more important to the team’s future.
Expectations are high for Caufield this season, but so will the pressure to sign him to a new contract as soon as he becomes eligible. There are already questions about what his new deal will look like. Based on comparables, we can make an educated guess, assuming he takes another step forward in his development.
Expectations for Canadiens Sniper in 2022-23
Entering his rookie season after a Stanley Cup Final run that saw him play as a top-line winger, Caufield was the favourite to win the Calder Trophy, but then started the 2021-22 season with just one goal and eight points in 30 games. He was then sent down to the American Hockey League (AHL) for a short time before a string of blowout losses led general manager (GM) Kent Hughes to hire Martin St. Louis as the interim head coach to close out the season. Caufield was recalled and played the final 37 games, scoring 22 goals and 13 assists under the new regime.
Last season was a tale of two players. Under Dominique Ducharme, Caufield seemed to lack confidence, trying to defer too much to the veterans by making passes instead of using his lethal shot. When he did use it, it usually missed the net. As game after game wore on without him scoring a goal, probably the first time in his life when he wasn’t scoring with ease, his shooting percentage dropped to a paltry 1.4%.
Under St. Louis, Caufield rediscovered his passion and confidence, returning to the player he was in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Playing for a coach who placed him in a more familiar role as a scoring forward, and by shooting more often, his scoring returned. His shooting accuracy improved exponentially to 19.3%, and his rise in production was also aided by his increased time on the power play (PP), where he went from three points under Ducharme to 10 points under St. Louis. Such an incredible improvement might be due to the fact St. Louis was his idol as a child or the combination of lowered expectations and a coach focused on individual development.
This season, Caufield will likely be paired with top-line center and newly minted team captain, Nick Suzuki, meaning that he will be expected to produce at the rate he did in the final 37 games of 2021-22, roughly 0.95 points per game (PPG). That rate would give him 77 points over an 82-game campaign.
That pace might be too high to expect from a sophomore winger, especially playing on a team expected to finish in the bottom third of the NHL standings. However, a 60-point season is fully attainable, as would a 30-goal campaign. That is a more realistic level of production, especially if Caufield is used as a top shooting weapon on the PP as he has been in the preseason.
Caufield’s Comparable Contracts
It is difficult to find players comparable to what Caufield brings to the Canadiens. For better accuracy, we can start with wingers coming off their entry-level contract (ELC). Also, they should be an important piece of their team’s offensive production, both on the PP and at five-on-five (5v5).
The first player that comes to mind is Nikolaj Ehlers. Like Caufield, Ehlers was a highly-touted player drafted high in the first round (ninth overall in the 2014 Draft). The Danish-born winger, however, played three full seasons for the Winnipeg Jets scoring 15, 25, and 29 goals, consistently improving his offensive game. At the time of his extension talks, the NHL salary cap was $75 million. Eventually, he agreed to a 6-year, $6 million average annual value (AAV) deal that was worth eight percent of the team’s salary cap. Comparing that to today’s situation, eight percent of the expected $83.5 million salary cap for 2023-24 would be $6.68 million AAV.
Another comparable player is undersized scoring winger in Clayton Keller. Like Caufield, he was a prolific offensive threat at the junior hockey and NCAA levels. He was also a highly-touted early first-round draftee, selected seventh overall by the Arizona Coyotes in the 2016 NHL Draft. Like Ehlers, Keller played three full seasons for the Arizona Coyotes before his extension came into effect when the Coyotes signed him to an eight-year deal worth $7.15 million AAV. Before signing his extension, the American-born winger signed his deal after campaigns of 24, 14, and 17 goals. Keller’s contract was worth 8.8 percent of the 2020-21 salary cap of $81.5 million. Comparing that to today’s situation, 8.8 percent of the expected $83.5 million salary cap for 2023-24 would be $7.35 million AAV.
Caufield’s Next Deal
Since Caufield played 10 games in his first season after he signed his ELC out of college and then played two more seasons (if 2022-23 is included), he will become a restricted free agent (RFA) who can receive an offer sheet. After the revenge offer sheet that saw Jesperi Kotkaniemi leave for the Carolina Hurricanes, the Canadiens are understandably sensitive to this issue and would be looking to ensure he is signed before July 1, 2023.
The good news is that the Canadiens will be able to move veteran contracts off the books either via trade or contracts expiring, opening up much more cap space to sign an extension. Also, the salary cap is expected to make a sharp rise in the next three seasons. Furthermore, Hughes seems focused on negotiations for the young sniper. In an interview with the Journal de Montréal, he assured some impatient observers that getting a deal done is at the top of his to-do list.
“I don’t have a preference on signing him (Caufield) right now or at the end of the season. I just don’t want it to be a distraction for him….as an agent I always took a player’s character into consideration. Some players tended to overthink things. I tried to go for a long-term deal. Others are so confident in themselves that they will continue to improve and play at a high level that term didn’t matter”-(translated from French) Kent Hughes (from ‘Cole Caufield un Dossier Prioritiaire,’ Jonathan Bernier, Journal de Montreal, 21 Sept. 2022)
Using the contracts mentioned above, we can estimate the value of a possible extension for Caufield. However, the term will depend on his importance to the club and, like Suzuki’s new deal, it could be a maximum length deal of eight years and no more than $7.875 million AAV. With the cap space available and balancing the need to save space for future contracts for core pieces such as Juraj Slafkovsky, Caufield’s deal will be an important one for the Canadiens to negotiate. With that in mind and using the Keller valuation of 8.8 to 9 percent of the expected 2023-24 salary cap, Caufield’s next contract could be an eight-year deal worth $7.35-$7.52 million AAV.
A full season under St. Louis will provide, both Caufield and Hughes will have a better understanding of where his development is trending. Despite the desire of the fans to have something done as soon as possible, there is no rush to the negotiations yet. Hughes is an experienced negotiator as an agent, and he will have an understanding of a player’s thought process and his needs in regard to the value and timing of any deal. While there is a possibility of an offer sheet, it isn’t a likely scenario considering the role Caufield has, the coach being his idol, and the comfort the young man feels in the city after living in Montreal year-round this past season. With all that in mind, fans can sit back and enjoy the season unfolding with confidence that both sides will sign a fair deal before next summer.
Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 29 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist with the goal to be a trusted source of information and entertainment.