Since being called up to the Montreal Canadiens taxi squad last week, Cole Caufield has practiced with the big team a couple of times, gone through the game-day routine and watched his teammates score three goals in three games. He’s also received a pretty good education on what not to do once he gets his chance to play in the NHL. So there’s that.
But as far as gaining any tangible experience in the NHL that could help either him or the Canadiens, Caufield has had a front-row seat to watch a team that can’t score at even strength or on the power play. He must feel like a sharpshooter who has to sit on the sidelines and watch a gunfight with a fully loaded gun in his holster. The fact that he hasn’t played yet, and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future has the Montreal hockey market in a lather. The Canadiens claimed they did not want to use their last of four non-emergency call-ups of the season on Caufield because it would take away future flexibility. Now with goalie Carey Price out for a week in concussion protocol, the Canadiens will have to recall Cayden Primeau as an emergency call-up and keep three goalies on the roster, which creates a salary cup issue that would prevent them from using Caufield even if they wanted to.
Kind of makes you wonder why they even bothered to elevate Caufield from the Laval Rocket to the taxi squad in the first place. Part of the reason is the Rocket haven’t played since April 9, when Caufield played his second of two games with Laval, scoring three goals and an assist. The Rocket has since had two games postponed because of the Toronto Marlies’ COVID situation and aren’t due to play again until Wednesday night, the same night the Canadiens visit the Edmonton Oilers.
So now the Canadiens are in a spot where they either keep Caufield around for the rest of this road trip, which ends next Monday, or send him back to Laval to get game reps in. They are in a quandary of their own making, albeit one that has now been exacerbated by the Price injury. Technically, the Canadiens could both recall Primeau and activate Caufield, but it would mean having to send someone else down. After the trade deadline, a team can have as many players on its roster as it wants, but it has to be cap compliant. And teams are limited to four call-ups after the trade deadline and three of those have been used on Paul Byron, Xavier Ouellet and Alexander Romanov.
Two of those players, Ouellet and Romanov, were sent down to the minors before the deadline and recalled after it. That makes them eligible for the American League playoffs, but it also put the Canadiens in a serious bind when it came to future recalls. And had Caufield been on the roster prior to Price getting hurt, the Canadiens would have been able to recall Primeau under the special emergency conditions in place for this season and keep Caufield on the roster. It’s complicated, but trust me. The good people at Puckpedia assure me this is the case.
So let’s side aside a couple of things here. The first is that if the Canadiens are at a point where they’d be leaning on a 20-year-old kid who has never played a shift in the NHL before to come in and cure what ails them offensively, that says a lot more about this roster’s construction than it does about call-up limits and cap ramifications. But the fact is the Canadiens can’t score and they waited too long to call up a player who, at all the other levels at which he’s played – has proved he can do just that.
The numbers, they are grim. The Canadiens have scored just 15 goals in their past nine games and two or fewer in seven of their past eight. Their power play has scored just two goals on 33 opportunities in its past 12 games and too many players to list here are enduring extended scoring slumps. Nobody is struggling more than Jonathan Drouin, who has zero goals in 25 games. Coincidentally, that’s exactly the number of games Dominique Ducharme, who won a Memorial Cup with Drouin in 2013, has coached the Canadiens. It was thought that Ducharme might be the one to be able to get the most out of Drouin, but the player who cost the Canadiens defenseman Mikhail Sergachev has been an offensive non-factor all season.
When queried about his 25-game goal drought, he had this to say in response: “There’s another column to the right, if you want to look at it.” And it's true that column says Drouin leads the Canadiens with 21 assists this season. It also says that despite averaging just over 17 minutes in ice time under Ducharme, Drouin has contributed just 11 assists, eight at even strength, in 25 games. So averaging under one assist every two games is enough for Drouin? Well, that might explain why he practiced on Tuesday on the left side of the fourth line with Eric Staal and Corey Perry.
The fact is that after a promising start, the Canadiens spiralling and are in shambles. Cole Caufield was never going to come in and fix that himself, but it would have been nice to see what he could do.