The decision whether or not to turn pro this week or stay another year at the University of Wisconsin appears to be Cole Caufield’s, and only Cole Caufield’s, to make. Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin has already gone on the record saying he doesn’t think Caufield is ready and should return to school for one more year, but also said he won’t stand in the young man’s way if it’s his burning desire to turn pro after his freshman year.
And that’s really, really unfair. And the person to whom it is most unfair is Cole Caufield. If you were a 19-year-old kid who had just come off a season in which you tied for the freshman goal scoring lead in U.S. college hockey and you’ve dreamed about playing in the NHL all your life, what choice would you make?
It boggles the mind sometimes how teams don’t use the tools available to them through the collective bargaining agreement. Whether the system is right or wrong or it works or it doesn’t, the fact is the Canadiens control Caufield’s rights for the foreseeable future and have every right to tell him they have no intention of signing him. If they really don’t believe he’s ready, why would they allow him to make that decision? Instead, Bergevin will meet with Caufield later this week to find out his intentions. If you listened to Caufield when he was drafted last summer, it’s very clear he wants to be playing in the best league in the world as quickly as possible.
“Like all other kids, his goal is to play in the NHL,” said Wisconsin coach Tony Granato, who played all four years at Wisconsin before signing with the New York Rangers in 1987, almost five years after he was drafted. “I had it. Everybody who makes it has that dream...Every player has to make sure you’ve done everything you can to be ready for that opportunity. Just from the standpoint that it’s a hard league. Now Cole is close, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that and he has to make the decision about what’s best for him.”
So it really comes down to whether or not Caufield is ready. Not sure that anybody knows that for sure, so there’s a lot of sense in staying another year at Wisconsin. Caufield is 5-foot-7 and 163 pounds and that will put him at a disadvantage whenever he enters the league, but particularly now when he could likely use more bulk on his frame. Yes, he led his team in scoring with 19 goals and 36 points in 36 games, which is really good, especially for a true freshman.
If you break down Caufield’s season, he had 12 goals and 20 points in his first 18 games and 7-9-16 totals in his final 18 games, though only one of those goals came in his final nine games of the season. If you include the World Junior Championship, where he scored just a goal and an assist in five games, he has 8-10-18 totals in 23 games. Again, pretty good. But is it great?
The fact remains that there would be a lot of growth if Caufield were he to return to Wisconsin. He would have the opportunity to dominate on a team that figures to be much better next season, particularly if Alex Turcotte and K'André Miller don’t sign with their NHL teams in the coming days. More importantly, he would have another opportunity to dominate at the World Junior Championship, a tournament where Caufield played for an underachieving U.S. team under questionable deployment. But he left that tournament with a lot of questions unanswered.
Bergevin might do well to take a page from Ken Holland’s book when it came to signing Dylan Larkin to a contract after his freshman year at the University of Michigan. Larkin desperately wanted to play in the NHL and it turns out he was absolutely right. But when they were negotiating his entry-level deal, Holland said directly to Larkin and said, “If you’re staring out the window of a bus in the middle of the night on a road trip from Milwaukee to Grand Rapids, remember it was you who made this decision.”
Or he might even do better to simply tell Caufield the Canadiens think it would be best for his development to return to college for one more season. They’ve already rushed Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who just happened to suffer a spleen injury over the weekend when he was hit along the boards in the AHL. Has anybody noticed that Caufield’s running mate last season with the U.S. national development team, No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes, has just one assist in his past 13 games?
Granato is in a bit of a bind here. He wants to see his players succeed and play at the next level, but he also wants to coach him next season. He can understand why players want to get to the NHL as soon as possible. There would be nothing more than a year of entry-level wages and a contract year that would be at risk for Caufield to go back to Wisconsin. There’s no rush and the Canadiens, of all people, should be the ones advocating that if that’s what they believe.
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