Montreal Canadiens rookie Cole Caufield looks like a new man under then-interim head coach Martin St. Louis. Well, at least a new version of the old Caufield, who took the NHL by relative surprise, when he became a key component on the team during the Habs’ 2021 run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Caufield’s impressive debut and end to the 2020-21 regular season paved the way for a starring role in the playoffs, during which he scored four goals and 12 points in 20 games. As a result, odds-makers had Caufield as the favorite to win the Calder Memorial Trophy and to break a Canadiens drought that’s lasted since 1972, when goalie Ken Dryden took home the award. The last representative of the team to do so.
Alas, it was not meant to be. Caufield struggled under ex-head coach Dominique Ducharme, scoring just one goal (and eight points) in the first 30 games of 2021-22. After St. Louis took over, Caufield went on a veritable rampage, though, scoring 21 points (11 goals) in just 16 games to actually pull back into the rookie scoring race.
In the end, Caufield finished his rookie campaign with 43 points in 67 games and was ninth in Calder Trophy voting. In doing so, he joined a fairly decent list of Canadiens who just missed out on the Calder in the years after Dryden won it, proves:
5. Carey Price (2008)
There’s a degree of revisionist history at work when many people look back on Carey Price’s career. He’ll undeniably go down in history as one of the best Canadiens goalies ever (Dryden himself among them as well). Winning the most games in franchise history will do that.
However, many forget he only became a consistent force circa the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. The keyword there is “consistent,” though. He still had stretches of brilliance, including over the course of his rookie 2007-08 campaign, when he finished with a 24-12-3 record, 2.56 goals-against average (GAA) and .920 save percentage (SV%). For good measure, he added a playoff series victory over the Boston Bruins.
In other seasons, it might have been enough to win the Calder, but not when Price was competing with the likes of Patrick Kane, Nicklas Backstrom and Jonathan Toews. Looking back on the players who got 2008 Calder votes that season (including Price’s teammate Sergei Kostitsyn), there were clearly four names who stood out above the rest of the pack. Price finished fourth of the bunch, maybe justifiably.
4. Kjell Dahlin (1986)
Kjell Dahlin may not be a name many Habs fans are familiar with, as he only played three seasons with the team. However, they probably should commit his exploits to memory.
Not only did Dahlin finish third in Calder voting in 1986 (Calgary Flames’ Gary Suter, Leafs’ Wendel Clark), but he led rookies in scoring that season. True, his 32 goals trailed Clark’s 34, but they’re a modern-era Canadiens rookie record. Dahlin’s 71 points meanwhile tied fellow Swede Mats Naslund for the overall team record.
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Ultimately, Dahlin admittedly failed to leave a lasting impact on the team beyond what he accomplished in that rookie season, which may leave some fans feeling shortchanged. Teammate Patrick Roy, who finished tied for fifth in voting, probably more than made up for the difference.
3. Chris Chelios (1985)
Defenseman Chris Chelios scored 64 points his rookie season, which would be impressive for a forward. However, he had the incredible misfortune of competing against a player by the name of Mario Lemieux, whose 100-point campaign was more than enough to make him le meilleur in Calder voting that season.
Technically speaking, goalie Steve Penney should have made this list, finishing third just behind Chelios. Considering Price finished fourth in 2008, it in principle should have been enough for Penney to overthrow him for the last spot. However, there are somewhat extenuating circumstances.
It’s not (just) that Penney ended up earning a reputation of a one-season wonder, while Price obviously went on to enjoy far greater success. It’s also that Lemieux and Chelios dominated to such an extent that season that including Penney would almost take away from Chelios’ inclusion. Plus, Penney earned just 10.16% of total vote points. Despite finishing fourth in 2008, Price earned 34.66%. So, he was technically closer to capturing the Calder anyway.
2. Brendan Gallagher (2013)
The lockout-shortened 2012-13 season produced two great rookie campaigns on the part of Canadiens. Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk literally finished within one point of one another in scoring, but Gallagher captured more hearts of voters, through his hard-nosed style of play (which, over the years, hasn’t endeared himself to referees to nearly the same extent).
In any case, Gallagher’s 15 goals to Galchenyuk’s 9 also had something to do with the former finishing second in Calder voting (compared to ninth for the latter). Ultimately, voters went for Florida Panthers rookie Jonathan Huberdeau’s skill over Gallagher’s grit, which has probably been justified over the years based on their respective career trajectories.
Gallagher will always be a fan favorite, but, given the choice between him and Huberdeau, it’s no contest. Habs fans would choose their native son 10 times out of 10, and not just because of the last name. Huberdeau’s become increasingly prolific, while Gallagher, maybe because of his playing style, has seen his stats decline dramatically. In Gallagher’s prime though? It would be much harder to call.
1. Michael Ryder (2004)
Michael Ryder may not have put together the best rookie season in Canadiens history, but it was undeniably solid. More to the point, it was the closest any Habs rookie has come to capturing the Calder since Dryden did in 1972.
In a five-way battle between relative late-bloomers, Ryder’s 25-goal, 63-point campaign placed second. He beat out the likes of Trent Hunter, John-Michael Liles and Ryan Malone, each of whom were 23 years old at the start of the campaign.
Ditto for Bruins goalie Andrew Raycroft, who captured the Calder on the strength of a 29-18-9 season, during which he posted a 2.05 GAA and .926 SV%. Raycroft obviously stumbled from there on out, with the Bruins (coincidentally headed up by Canadiens executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton at the time) eventually trading him to the Leafs for Tuukka Rask.
Related: The Rise & Fall of Andrew Raycroft
For a time, Ryder became a fairly reliable offensive force for the Habs. He followed up his impressive rookie season with two straight 30-goal campaigns, but eventually joined the Bruins himself as a free agent.
Ryder enjoyed flashes of his early-career success here and there, most notably from the perspective of Canadiens fans during the 2012-13 season (see Brendan Gallagher above), when he rejoined the team via the Dallas Stars. In 27 regular-season games with the Habs that season, Ryder rediscovered his rookie scoring touch with 10 goals and 11 assists.
Ryder unfortunately fell fairly silent during the team’s five-game playoff run that spring, but it was nevertheless a nice trip down the memory lane. Fleeting but nice. Based on his recent production, it’s probably everyone’s hope Caufield lasts a while longer in a Habs uniform.