Cole Caufield is the shiny new toy for the Montreal Canadiens and their fans, having just been selected 15th overall at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft against all expectations that he would still be available at that position. His play with the United States at the World Under-18 tournament opened more eyes to his talent, and people want to know what his plans are for next season.
While he’s at the Canadiens development camp in Brossard, questions arose to his options headed into next seasons as an 18-year old American junior player whose rights were held by a CHL team prior to his NHL selection. In fact, all options are open.
Option 1: NCAA, University of Wisconsin
The first, and most probable, option is that Caufield heads to the University of Wisconsin Badgers where he committed to the Big Ten Conference team in November of 2017. There he has his brother Brock waiting for him, and he may be joined by fellow first-rounder Alex Turcotte to play for former NHL player Tony Granato who is entering his fourth year as head coach of the team where he was captain back in 1986-87.
In an interview with Sporting News, Granato fully expects Caufield to join the team, and pointed out that Caufield is a nearly complete player who just needs some fine tuning, and expects him to turn pro sooner than later.
“He’s a very reliable player. He’s responsible, he understands what it means to play wing, he understands what it means to play in D-zone coverage. He understands when you’ve got a one-goal lead how you’ve got to play. So I think he’s a brilliant hockey player. He’s going to be reliable to play with and he’s going to be a guy that’s going to be very dangerous and hard to play against defensively.
So I just think he’s got way more assets than he has liabilities. There’s some fine-tuning and there’s some maturing with parts of his game that he’s got to get better with . . . but I think that he’s a guy who knows the game, knows the importance of playing well without the puck. There’s maturity that will come with time but I also think he’s got a really good idea about how to play the game.”
Caufield joining the Badgers would mean he would not get an Entry-Level Contract from the Canadiens. Any contract would end his NCAA eligibility. Canadiens fans would also not see him in a Habs jersey until next season’s development camp as he will be unable to play in the Rookie Showcase or take part in training camp.
Although he will be in Canada later in the year, when the Badgers are scheduled to play against the University of British Columbia in Vancouver over Labour Day weekend in an exhibition series.
Another player of note with the Badgers is another Canadiens draft pick, Jack Gorniak.
Option 2: NHL, Montreal Canadiens
Should Caufield sign an entry-level contract, you would have to imagine that making the NHL would become an option. We saw it last season when 18-year old Jesperi Kotkaniemi made the Habs out of camp and essentially took a roster spot from veteran Tomas Plekanec. If Caufield can prove during the development camp and the rookie showcase that he can continue to put goals in at the professional level, there is a very good chance that he makes history repeat and, at the very least, gets at least a nine-game audition with the Canadiens.
But it’s going to be a tough sell to slot Caufield into a top-nine role on the team because that would necessitate taking the risk of sacrificing an established roster member to make room for Caufield.
Of course the second he signs a contract his NCAA days are over. At that point only three options remaining for Caufield: the NHL, the OHL, or the AHL.
Option 3: OHL, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
There was an excellent debate on Twitter regarding Caufield’s options given that the Greyhounds drafted him in the OHL Priority Draft ahead of the NHL Entry Draft, and whether that would have any impact on Caufield’s AHL eligibility. At the end of the day the rules were properly cleared up, and the conclusion is that simply holding a player’s CHL rights does not invalidate participation in the AHL as long as the player does not play a game for the CHL team.
The CHL team in question is the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL who selected Caufield in the 12th round of the OHL Priority Draft.
In an interview with the Soo Times, Greyhounds general manager Kyle Raftis did mention that they were in touch with Caufield’s representatives, but the general tone was not very hopeful. “With those guys having the years that they’re coming off of, it’s just a wait and see how their NHL draft goes,” Raftis said. “We’re in contact with them. It hasn’t been anything that has gotten close at any point thus far. We’ll see how the next couple of weeks trend.”
With fellow Canadiens draft pick Jacob LeGuerrier playing there, he may have a familiar face to speak with, not to mention that his grandfather Wayne and his father Paul are both from the Soo, and therefore he has family lineage in the city that could attract him.
An additional benefit would be that at the end of the Greyhounds season, Caufield could join either the Canadiens or the Rocket for a few games.
Option #4: AHL, Laval Rocket
Caufield is AHL-eligible since he was drafted out of the American junior program without having played a single game in the Canadian junior ranks, but this one is a bit off of the beaten path. It’s very rare for an 18-year old to play in the AHL. David Pastrnak did it for the Providence Bruins, but quickly graduated to the Boston Bruins.
Caufield could join the Laval Rocket on an Entry-Level Contract, but it would not count against the 50-contract cap for the Canadiens because of the slide rule if he does not play more than nine games in the NHL.
In fact, should he pursue this route the Canadiens could get five years out of his three-year entry level contract at the pro level. That definitely makes it a reason to consider this route.
The Rocket are headed into year two of the Joël Bouchard era, and are expected to welcome a wave of high-end prospects such as Nick Suzuki, Josh Brook, Cayden Primeau, Joel Teasdale, and possibly Ryan Poehling. Caufield would not be necessarily be exposed to the toughest competition right away, and Bouchard would be able to isolate him and slowly increase his responsibilities.
Whichever path Caufield chooses, the Canadiens will have to show patience in order to avoid the chaotic development of Louis Leblanc who was also drafted out of the USHL, and bounced around the NCAA, CHL, and AHL before finally arriving in the NHL with an unrefined and scattershot developmental curve.