Finding a sweet spot for Cole Caufield's contract extension

Could a five-year term suit both the team and player's immediate and future needs?

Finding a sweet spot for Cole Caufield's contract extension
Photo by Scott Graham / Unsplash

The conversation around Cole Caufield has always polarized to the extremes, and the discussion surrounding Caufield’s next contract is no exception. Has the Wisconsin native done enough to warrant a contract befitting one of the team’s future pillars a la Nick Suzuki, or is a short-term bridge deal akin to Kirby Dach’s more appropriate for a player who has yet to top 70 games in a season?

The middle ground may be best for both team and player. A five-year deal can carry Caufield straight to unrestricted free agency and a large payday, while giving maximum flexibility to a Montreal Canadiens team still developing its future identity.

It’s only been 123 games, but Caufield has already cemented his position as the best natural goal-scorer to don the bleu blanc rouge since Stéphane Richer, the last player to pot 50 goals in a single season for the Canadiens. In fact, Caufield’s 26 goals last season, achieved in only 46 games, would still place within the top three in team goals for every season since 2008-09.

He has not only sailed over the relatively low bar set by the 21st century Montreal Canadiens, but established his place as one of the league’s top scorers. Since the hiring of Martin St-Louis as head coach on February 10, 2022, Caufield has scored 36 goals in 1,238 five-on-five minutes, a rate of 1.74 goals per 60 minutes. This number places him second league-wide across this timeframe, behind only David Pastrnak (2.00) and just ahead of Auston Matthews (1.71), Connor McDavid (1.61), and Nathan MacKinnon (1.56).

Therein lies the rub. The likes of McDavid and MacKinnon do not need qualifiers and specific scenarios to justify their value, and even Caufield’s staunchest supporters would be hard-pressed to place the winger in that rarefied air. Caufield may be an elite goal-scorer, but he has not yet fully demonstrated the qualities — consistency, versatility, multi-dimensional play — that would make him an elite hockey player capable of transcending qualifiers such as “before St-Louis” and "after St-Louis.”

In short, if the Canadiens want to commit money to Caufield, then they must further desire to create an environment to nurture him. If they’re unwilling to do that, this story may end the same way as Max Pacioretty’s (1.23 five-on-five goals per 60 minutes from 2013-2015, fifth-best league-wide).

A maximum-term contract and its associated salary cap hit therefore symbolizes not only a commitment to Caufield, but a commitment to a style and system centred on making the most out of his skill set. That is a weighty decision to make after only 123 NHL games, especially with other potential long-term talismanic players like Suzuki, Dach, Juraj Slafkovský, and the fifth overall selection in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft also in the fold.

It also presents a question down the line that the Toronto Maple Leafs are currently facing: if it doesn’t work out, can you change the system without changing the players?

At the same time, Habs fans are all too aware of the fact that natural goal-scorers do not grow on trees, and letting Caufield go or relegating him to a non-essential asset could be a mistake that the franchise rues for decades – how long did the Canadiens go without a bona fide power forward after John LeClair’s departure?

Given this, a five-year term may be the best course of action. The franchise benefits not only by the lower cap hit, but also by maintaining the flexibility to pivot either away from Caufield as he develops or with him as he becomes a more multifaceted player. In exchange, Caufield keeps all of his unrestricted free agency years, and is finely poised for a megacontract in his prime at age 27 when the salary cap may be around the $100-million mark.

There is ample precedent for five-/six-year contracts to serve as a benchmark. The higher end of the spectrum contains players like Nikolai Ehlers (22 years of age, 8.0% of the salary cap, seven years), Matthew Boldy (22, 8.48%, seven years), William Nylander (22, 8.76%, six years), and Jake Guentzel (24, 7.55%, five years). The lower end includes the likes of Adam Henrique (23, 6.22%, six years), Joel Farabee (22, 6.14%, six years), Travis Konecny (22, 6.75%, six years) and Drake Batherson (23, 6.1%, six years).

At the current salary cap of $83.5 million, 7% equates to $5.85 million, 8% to $6.68 million, and 9% to $7.52 million. This range places Caufield neatly between Suzuki (9.66% when signed, 9.4% currently) and Dach (4.08% when signed, 4.03% currently) in the club’s salary hierarchy, which feels appropriate to both their track records at the time of signing and how the club is likely to view these three players moving forward.

At the same time, these values are high enough to feel reasonable for a player of Caufield’s calibre, while also inviting the prospect of a $10-, $12-, or even $14-million pay day in the summer of 2028. Naturally, should Kent Hughes wish to acquire term beyond 2028 in this deal, the average annual value would increase accordingly.

Flexibility is the key word for both club and player. For Caufield, a five-year term would give him the utmost power to maximize his earnings in unrestricted free agency. For the Canadiens, it represents having more salary cap space to work with during a period where the team will have to make decisions on a third contract for Dach, as well as a litany of potential post-ELC extensions for Slafkovský, Kaiden Guhle, Arber Xhekaj, Justin Barron, Joshua Roy, Owen Beck, Filip Mesar, Sean Farrell, Logan Mailloux, and maybe even Lane Hutson depending on when he turns professional. It also gives the team the all-important decision to either prioritize or walk away from Caufield, depending on both how the player and the team have progressed over the course of the next five years, just as the team is primed to truly enter its window of contention.

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