This season has been painful for fans to endure. It is still early in the 2021-22 NHL season, but watching the Montreal Canadiens limp to a 2-8-0 start has stirred up a hornet’s nest in the Montreal fanbase. There are also questions swirling around the team due to general manager Marc Bergevin’s lame-duck status, being in the final season of his contract with no known plan to remain or be replaced.
Because of this slow start, the playoffs are likely already out of reach. This is a time for the team to review what is best in the long term for their young players. After the Canadiens returned from their western road trip that saw them gain only one win in four games, they decided that Cole Caufield needed to be assigned to the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Laval Rocket.
Caufield Is NHL Ready
This slow start has affected everyone on the ice, including rookie winger Caufield. After last season’s playoff run where he produced 12 points in 20 games on the team’s top line, stepping up and generating goals at key moments, he was expected to be in the running for the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the NHL.
Instead, Caufield had one assist in the first 10 games of this season, averaging only 14 minutes per game. It is true that he’s NHL ready. As a player, he could be left on an NHL roster and manage quite well. His playoff performances last season are proof of that. Also, his defensive play this season has been adequate enough to allow him to remain in the NHL.
However, is “adequate enough to allow him to remain in the NHL” what the Canadiens were looking to draft when they chose Caufield at 15th overall at the 2019 NHL Draft? No, they drafted someone they saw as a future top-six scoring threat.
Caufield’s ice time began being restricted, likely due to head coach Dominique Ducharme trusting him less and less. On the power play, he was moved from the top unit down to the second unit, cutting him down to 20 to 30 seconds per power play, sometimes even less. This has dramatically minimized his offensive opportunities at the man advantage.
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Furthermore, Ducharme removed Caufield from Nick Suzuki’s wing on the top line and moved him into a third-line role. This reduced his 5-on-5 ice time as well. Also, it meant he was paired with a revolving door at center, leaving him unable to build any chemistry with his linemates. That can be detrimental to the development of a rookie whose skill set is as a shooter, as he has difficulty reading and reacting to the plays of his linemates, throwing off his timing and his shot selection.
Canadiens Development Process
Building confidence for young players in the roles they had been drafted to fill for should be the Canadiens’ top priority this season. That is built by placing them in roles they are best suited to fill. It also means giving them the ice time to apprentice those skills. Caufield wasn’t getting enough ice time or suitable roles in the NHL, so it isn’t a bad choice to send him to Laval and get more playing time. Looking at two scoring forwards the Canadiens had drafted in the past can give fans a good reason as to why this “demotion” is beneficial.
As a 19-year-old NHL rookie, Guillaume Latendresse had 16 goals and 13 assists in 80 games while only averaging 12:35 of ice time per game. The 2006-07 Canadiens had a 40-win season, missing the playoffs by only two points, so perhaps it was necessary to cut his ice time down due to his defensive game needing to be improved, as he had a minus-20, which placed him near the bottom of the team despite his limited ice time.
The following season, he scored 16 goals again, and his defensive game improved, but his average time on ice fell to 12:15 per game. Had he been given more time to develop in the junior game and some time in the AHL in the top-six role he was drafted to fill, perhaps he wouldn’t have ended up being traded after several seasons of his role tapering off for Benoit Pouliot in what was said to be a necessary change of scenery for a player who’s development was stagnant.
The Canadiens will want to avoid this situation, allowing a player to stagnate in the NHL simply because they’re NHL ready is not always beneficial.
The last player the Habs successfully drafted to be a top-six scoring winger was Max Pacioretty. Like Caufield, he chose the NCAA route and impressed with great offensive numbers but had a difficult first World Junior Championship appearance with Team USA.
Pacioretty also had a strong NHL start but soon saw his ice time cut back as his role diminished, spending time going up and down between the NHL and AHL but not being given the scoring role he was drafted by the Habs to fill. Like Caufield, he had shown he was NHL ready, but instead of being satisfied with only that, Pacioretty talked of returning to the AHL to apprentice in the role he felt he could play.
“I just don’t see the need, for my development, to play the bottom two lines in the NHL because ultimately, I feel I’m going to be a top-six forward. That’s what I want to be. I’ve experienced the bottom two lines in Montreal and it’s obviously not what’s going to develop me into the player I want to be.”-Max Pacioretty (Randy Phillips, Hamilton Not So Bad: Pacioretty, The Montreal Gazette, 5 Nov 2010)
Pacioretty went to the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL, where he played his top-six role with power play time. Eventually he returned to the Canadiens prepared and motivated, playing in the top-six role he proved he can play at lower levels. He went on to have five 30-plus goal campaigns for the Canadiens before he was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights.
Caufield’s Next Step
Worst case scenario for Caufield was to continue playing minimal minutes in the NHL on a third or fourth line with less talented centers while also playing secondary power-play roles, if he got any power-play time at all. Despite being the most dangerous offensive player on the third line each night, Caulfield is unable to earn a promotion up the lineup.
While there is much to be said about giving a player a consistent approach at the NHL level, it needs to take place in the role the organization believes a player will eventually fill and prosper in. For Caufield, his current role is not ideal. Like in Pacioretty’s case, the young winger will need time to build his confidence at the professional level to become more than just NHL ready. The Canadiens need him to reach his potential and become the top-six scoring winger he was selected at the draft to become.
Development is not always in a straight line. Each player has different needs during the maturing process. When a team is having a weak season, and can’t place the focus on giving one of their youth all of the ice time in the roles they require, it is best to take a step back and reassess. Sometimes players need to be sheltered, especially while still developing. In his case, this assignment to Laval may be a blessing as it provides Caufield the ice time playing the role and responsibilities he was selected at the draft to fill.
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 28 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist to guide him in informing his readers and his goal of being a trusted source of information and entertainment.