Montreal Canadiens: What Would Be Best Decision For Cole Caufield’s Development?

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - JUNE 21: Cole Caufield (Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images)
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - JUNE 21: Cole Caufield (Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images) /

The Montreal Canadiens will have a tough decision to make with their top prospect, Cole Caufield. Should he stay at college for one more year, or turn pro this week?

The Montreal Canadiens knew they were getting an elite level goal scorer when they drafted Cole Caufield. They took the Wisconsin native with the 15th pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and must have been surprised to see him still available at that time.

Caufield had proven by then he was the best goal scoring threat in the entire draft. He had averaged more than a goal per game while playing for the United States Under-18 Development Program. He was by far the best goal scorer at the World Under-18 Championships which featured the top draft eligible players from around the world.

The only knock on Caufield was his size. He is just 5’7″ and though there are no height requirements for firing wrist shots past the best goaltenders in the world, size still scares off plenty of general managers around the league. If it didn’t, Caufield would have been a top five pick, not the 15th pick.

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Nevertheless, he dropped to the Habs and then went to play for his home college this season. The Wisconsin Badgers had high hopes entering the year but they struggled out of the gate and never really got going until the last three weekends of regular season play. It resulted in them finishing last in the Big Ten Conference and drawing a tough Ohio State team in the opening round of playoffs.

That ended pretty quickly for Caufield and the Badgers as they were demolished 9-1 in game one on Friday night and then lost 2-1 in overtime on Saturday to end their season.

Caufield had a strong year with 19 goals and 36 points in 36 games. Point per game production is rare from a freshman at the college level, especially one who has so many doubters every time he moves up a step on the hockey ladder. It was supposed to be difficult for Caufield to be playing against 22 and 23 year olds for the first time in his career, but he scored two goals in each of his first three games and silenced his critics pretty quickly.

Now that his season is over, Caufield is eligible to sign with the Montreal Canadiens if the team and the player agree to do so. But is that the right choice for the diminutive winger? Should he turn pro yet or should he stay at Wisconsin for another year?

Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin recently spoke about Caufield and said the organization does not think he is ready for the NHL level and they will suggest he stays at Wisconsin for another year.

Caufield, on the other hand, has been pretty open about his desire to sign as soon as possible and wants to play games with the Canadiens this season.

So what is the best path for Caufield? He dominated college hockey, scoring at a point per game pace on an awful team. He wants to turn pro immediately and get closer to suiting up for the Canadiens. The management team thinks it would be too soon and even a trop to the Laval Rocket might be a big step for the small forward.

I think the best step for Caufield is to stay at Wisconsin another year. He may think he is ready to step into an NHL lineup and his points at the college level suggest he might be. However, a couple of players taken even earlier than him in the draft had similar production and have struggled to step into NHL lineups.

Tyson Jost was taken 10th overall by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2016 NHL Draft. He played one season at the University of North Dakota and scored 16 goals and 35 points in 33 games. Almost identical numbers to Caufield. Jost is still struggling to find his footing in the NHL. He plays a depth role for the Avs but has just 22 points in 67 games this season.

Casey Mittelstadt was the 8th overall pick in 2017. He played the next season at the University of Minnesota and scored 30 points in 34 games. He signed with the Buffalo Sabres and ended that same season scoring five points in six NHL games. Then he had just 25 points in 77 NHL games last year. This season he was sent to the minors after another tough start.

A second year of college would have done Jost and Mittelstadt well. It is difficult to compare forwards and defenders by numbers, but Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes both went back for a second year of college hockey after putting up great numbers as freshman. It seemed to prepare them pretty well for the NHL this year as they will certainly be first and second in rookie voting.

Not often do you ever hear someone say a prospect was kept in Junior or college for a year too long. Caufield put up great numbers for a first year college player, but that doesn’t mean he is ready to jump right into the NHL this week.

It will be interesting to see what Bergevin and Caufield decide. The player wants to play NHL games as soon as possible and the GM wants him to further develop at Wisconsin. Even if he returns to Wisconsin, he could join the Canadiens around this time of year next year for what will hopefully be a playoff push.

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The best decision for Caufield’s long-term development would be to leave him at Wisconsin for a second year. Hopefully Bergevin can convince the teenager of that and they agree to leave things status quo for next season. It would pay off in the long run, when this team is actually ready to contend.