MONTREAL—I’m not sure it’s something I would’ve said, but I’m not Cole Caufield.
I can only pretend to know what’s going through his mind as he enters the biggest off-season of his young career, and that’s what I’m going to try do here knowing that I can’t be certain of anything.
Last Friday, when I asked the 22-year-old what he thinks he’s proven to himself about what kind of player he believes he can be in the best hockey league in the world, I was attempting to pry something out of him to help me understand how he’s thinking about his next contract.
He responded, “I’ve not really played a full season yet, so I don’t think I’ve proven anything.”
I get it. This final press briefing of the 2022-23 season was being held almost three months after Caufield’s season ended with shoulder surgery.
He played just 46 games, appeared in 67 the year before and got his feet wet with just 30 (regular season and playoffs combined) in his rookie year, so his disclaimer about his lack of experience naturally couldn’t be followed by some sort of bold proclamation.
I was just thinking, in asking the question, that it may have been the right time for Caufield to publicly acknowledge what he has already done in the NHL, as his agent, Pat Brisson, angles for a lucrative extension for him with the Montreal Canadiens.
Taken another way, though—and perhaps exactly how Caufield intended for it to be taken—the Wisconsonite could’ve been saying, “I’m just getting started.”
“I think there’s a long way to go, but I like where I’m going” were the next words out of Caufield’s mouth.
“Every year, every level I’ve played at, the next year just keeps getting better. So that’s kind of how I’m looking at things this summer,” he concluded, and that certainly didn’t make it sound like he was downplaying his prior achievements or unsure of what he’ll be able to do moving forward.
I may not have started with “I don’t think I’ve proven anything,” but when you put those words together with the rest of his answer, you get to part of what Caufield actually has proven.
Caufield is confident without being cocky, and that too is worth something. That confidence has been evident in both his demeanor and his play through almost every day he’s spent with the Canadiens, and it’s a sought-after quality—especially in goal scorers.
General manager Kent Hughes knows he possesses it in spades.
He can review the tapes from the 20 playoff games Caufield played just 10 regular season games into his career, he can sift through the 83 he’s played since Martin St. Louis’ arrival behind the bench, or he can look back on all his interactions with him if he wishes to have it confirmed.
But none of that seems necessary, especially considering what the numbers say.
Caufield had four goals and 12 points and played a monumental role in the Canadiens’ run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final, and he made that 30-game stumble under Dominique Ducharme to start the next season a distant memory in producing 48 goals over 83 games for St. Louis.
Caufield produced 71 points over that time and took big steps in evolving into a more complete player, so Hughes knows why he’s so confident and he should have a fairly accurate idea of how far that confidence is likely to take him.
Caufield isn’t under any illusions, either.
He may not have enough experience in the league to argue he has consistently scored with the best of the best in the NHL. But he can say he made his way to the NHL as a bona fide goal scorer and that he’s scored more than all but eight players in the league over his last 83 games, which is anything but a small sample.
That he’s younger than all eight players on that list should only bolster his confidence and make him all the more willing to prove himself on a shorter-term deal, if it comes down to that.
Hughes can try to use Caufield’s inexperience to convince him to take a long-term deal that would be friendly to the Canadiens. A deal like the one fellow 2019 draftee Matt Boldy signed earlier this season (a seven-year, $49-million extension) comes to mind, and he could argue that would be fair to Caufield based on what Caufield has or hasn’t proven.
But Caufield and Brisson could argue that Boldy doesn’t provide an apples-to-apples comparison.
Boldy, who was selected by Minnesota right before the Canadiens took Caufield, had 29 goals and 68 points in 91 games before he signed.
Sure, he proved himself up to be a complete player with the potential to provide appropriate value on that contract. But even now, months after signing, Boldy has produced a total of 46 goals over his 128 NHL games while Caufield has 48 in his last 83, and premium goal-scoring potential typically commands more.
That’s evident when you look at the salaries of the eight players who generated more goals than Caufield did from Feb. 9 of 2022 (when St. Louis was hired) to Jan. 19 of 2023 (when Caufield last appeared in a game).
Many of them, just like Boldy, aren’t directly comparable, either. Some of them (like David Pastrnak) are on their third contract and aren’t comparable at all, and some (like Leon Draisaitl) were signed out of entry-level to what were then perceived to be deals that overpaid them but now appear to be complete bargains.
But whether you want to ignore Pastrnak’s deal, look at Draisaitl’s eight-year, $68-million deal in 2017 or Jason Robertson’s four-year, $31-million deal signed just before this season, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out Caufield is going to cost more than most Canadiens fans are probably assuming (or hoping) he will.
They had better brace themselves because, with the salary cap expected to take a considerable jump—it may only be a million this off-season, but it’s likely to increase exponentially year-over-year over a seven- or eight-year term based on how strongly league revenue has bounced back since the pandemic—I wouldn’t expect to see Caufield sell himself short.
I asked him if he’s contemplating how other impact players on contending teams have talked about the necessity to take a bit less over term to ensure contender status is secured for as long as possible.
“Obviously, you think about all those things, all those factors,” Caufield said, “but, at the end of the day, it’s kind of about yourself. You put the team first, but, looking at it down the road, I think there’s a lot of factors that go in it with family down the road, life in general.”
He completed his answer by reiterating his desire to remain in Montreal for a long time.
But I think it’s fair to assume that, based on everything Caufield said, he’s not going to leave millions on the table to do so.
It only reinforces to me that Hughes would be turning water into wine if he could convince Caufield to sign for seven or eight years under Nick Suzuki’s $7.87-million hit and for as little as Boldy’s $7-million one.
Still, if the GM can’t turn that kind of miracle, and if he won’t consider signing Caufield to a long-term deal that could (for now) be perceived as an overpay, a three-year deal might not be as bad for the Canadiens as some may think.
It would definitely be great for Caufield—especially given how much he believes in himself—but it could also be good for them, ensuring they could be competing for a playoff spot in at least one of the three years and hopefully contending for a Cup in one of them while he’s locked in for a what would be a digestible cap hit than if the one he’d carry if he immediately signed for eight years.
Caufield will still make good money on a deal like that, and he can bank big on the next deal if he does what he believes he can do and what the Canadiens would hope he’ll do.
If it goes down that way, they can be happy knowing that when they added the money over the first three years to what they’d pay over the next five, it probably wouldn’t end up being that much more expensive than what it would be if they were to give him what he’d realistically sign for over eight years right now.
Because even if Caufield said he’s yet to prove anything, he’s proven enough to himself to drive a hard bargain and feel comfortable with waiting until the best offer is on the table.
Maybe it’s already there and he’s looking it over right now.
But it’s more likely the best offer isn’t arriving before there’s some actual pressure in this negotiation, which first comes as we approach July 1—when Caufield is in a position to field offer sheets from other teams—and only ramps up from there.
All parties should hope it doesn’t go so far, and that they can reach a consensus quickly and amicably.