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How the COVID-19 pandemic might affect Cole Caufield’s upcoming year

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With NCAA sports beginning to cancel in various regions, where might Cole Caufield end up playing hockey?

NHL: JUN 26 Montreal Canadiens Development Camp Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While one big name from the Montreal Canadiens’ prospect pool finally arrived when Alexander Romanov entered the bubble, all eyes have shifted to the next blue-chipper likely to join the Habs professional ranks. That of course is Cole Caufield, who after much discussion opted to return to the University of Wisconsin for his sophomore season. That meant it was likely to be over a year before Montreal could have feasibly seen Caufield in a Habs sweater.

Then of course there was this current global pandemic, and now leagues across the world are feeling the brunt. One of those leagues is the NCAA, and earlier this week multiple conferences voted to delay their fall sports, mainly centred around the sport of football. Some colleges, namely the University of Michigan, have also cancelled or postponed many of their other programs, including ice hockey. So if Wisconsin follows suit and there isn’t any NCAA hockey this year, what does that mean for one of hockey’s top prospects?

Luckily there are plenty of options for him, including one that could see him join the professional ranks of the Laval Rocket, or even the Canadiens.

Option 1: The CHL

Perhaps the most lateral move for Caufield is to shift from the NCAA to the Canadian Hockey League. His rights are held by Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League. The Greyhounds took a flyer on him with a 12th-round selection in the OHL Priority Selection Draft in 2018, when it was all but confirmed that Caufield was headed to the NCAA. It’s a tactic many CHL teams use, risking a late-round choice should a player change his mind, like the New York IslandersBode Wilde.

For Caufield it isn’t so much that he isn’t loving the NCAA, it’s that a player at his stage in development needs to play, and the CHL is the league closest to the NCAA in terms of it’s development quality overall. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two leagues is that the CHL is for more free-flowing, loose hockey compared to the NCAA being a more defensively inclined league. What this means for Caufield is he could slide himself into a league that plays very much to his strength: scoring goals by the truckload.

His rights are also owned by a team in the USHL, but it’s a step back in terms of competition, and if Caufield isn’t going to turn pro, the CHL is likely the destination he’d end up at.

Option 2: Sign ELC, assigned to the AHL

The next option is the first of two professional options should he opt to sign his entry-level contract. Since he was not drafted out of the CHL, he can be assigned to the AHL before the age of 20, which is a huge potential bonus for the Canadiens organization. The Laval Rocket, under the watchful eye of Joël Bouchard, have begun to fix many of the long-standing issues that plagued development and prospects for years. Adding Caufield to a group that will also feature Cayden Primeau, Josh Brook, Jesse Ylönen, Jake Evans, and a handful of wily veterans like Alex Belzile is a recipe for success.

Bouchard has done well to bring out the best in many of the prospects he’s had under his watch, but he’s yet to have a potential star like Caufield on his roster. The diminutive sniper could be that last piece that pushes the Rocket into being one of the AHL’s elite clubs.

Option 3: Sign ELC, join the Canadiens

The Canadiens need goals. Caufield scores all of the goals. It’s a match made in hockey heaven. However, the one hiccup in this might be the Canadiens wanting to make sure they’re in a place to begin burning his entry-level contract, which fits their new mantra of not rushing prospects.

On the flip side, adding Caufield to their offensive group finally gives them an elite finishing talent, something they’ve lacked in a big way since Max Pacioretty was traded. Slotting in next to Nick Suzuki or Jesperi Kotkaniemi gives either of the Habs’ young centres a deadly shooter, and could very well help push them to a new level in their development, while also creating a deadly line to be deployed at even strength or on the power play.

It’s tantalizing for sure, but recent actions make me think that Marc Bergevin won’t rush Caufield into a role he isn’t ready for quite yet.

Option 4: Wait it out, hope for an NCAA season

Perhaps the least appealing option to fans is that Caufield could very well just wait it out if the season is only pushed back to the spring term in the NCAA. While football appears to be done in the Big Ten for now, hockey remains up in the air. Given current projections related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be shocking if hockey starts on time. Caufield and the Canadiens were both strong in their statements about his return to the NCAA, so it’s clear the forward wants to bring some trophies back to Wisconsin.

There really isn’t a bad choice for Cole Caufield in this upcoming season, all things considered. In the OHL he’d very likely become one of the most dangerous scoring threats in the entire league, and Sault Ste. Marie has a long track record of developing NHL-quality players. If he were to sign an ELC with the Canadiens there’s a ready-made spot for him in the AHL with Bouchard, but he’d also have every chance to claim a spot on the NHL roster as well. And of course him returning to the NCAA should there be a season is just fine. He’s already proven himself to be a great goal-scorer for the Badgers, and he could put his mark on the entire NCAA in a second year.

The options are plentiful, and while it looked like we might not see Caufield in the the pro ranks until next year, this pandemic-driven world might soon give Habs fans everywhere another piece of the rebuild puzzle.