Will Canadiens prospect Cole Caufield join NHL with NCAA season done?

Jesse Fuchs and Eric Engels look at the Canadiens' trade for Eric Staal from the Sabres, which cost them only a couple picks for an experienced centreman.

On Friday, the Montreal Canadiens added Eric Staal from the Buffalo Sabres. Could Cole Caufield from the Wisconsin Badgers be next?

Montreal's top prospect had his college season come to a surprising early end Friday, when his Wisconsin team was eliminated by Bemidji State in the first round of the NCAA men's hockey tournament. The Badgers had been the top-ranked team in their region, and the favourite to advance out of it and into the Frozen Four in April.

The 15th overall pick in 2019, Caufield has had two highly productive seasons in Wisconsin and is this year's favourite for the Hobey Baker Award after scoring 28 goals and 49 points in 30 games. It's been highly speculated that he could sign with the Canadiens after his season came to a close, but that wasn't anticipated to happen for another two weeks.

His scoring upside is tantalizing. Caufield was 10 goals clear of the next highest scorer in the NCAA this season and won back-to-back Big 10 scoring titles. He had two goals and five points at the WJC this season.

And by adding two more goals in his finale, Caufield reached 30 on the season, which stands as a significant amount in historical perspective.

His shot is a regular on highlight reels and it's that part of his game specifically that Habs fans are eager to see in the NHL.

“You’ll ask NHL goalies — it’s not the hardest shot. It’s not the guy that can pick the little spots. It’s the guys like (Auston) Matthews, (Connor) McDavid, they just get the pucks off their sticks so fast,” Badgers goalie Robbie Beydoun told Todd Milewski of the Wisconsin State Journal. “When you’re able to do that, the goalie’s not going to be as set. When a goalie’s set in this league and up, the goalies are going to make the saves on clear-sighted shots. The elite goal-scorers like Cole, those are guys that can beat goalies clean on wristers. And he’s able to do that because he’s able to get it off extremely quick.”

Even in the loss to Bemidji State, Caufield was driving the offence in a desperate push. When the Badgers trailed 2-0 Caufield earned the primary assist on Linus Weissbach's goal. Bemidji State scored the next three goals to increase the lead to 5-1, but Caufield willed his team back within a prayer by scoring twice in the third period — once on the power play, once at even strength — though that was all the offence Wisconsin could find.

After the Badgers lost, the immediate reaction from the outside was to wonder if his next step was to sign with Montreal and how quickly that may happen. It's a tough, but expected, question for a 20-year-old fresh off an emotional loss.

"I haven't even thought about that yet," Caufield said. "Our season just ended. I can't even think about that yet. I need to take a few days and figure it out from there. This is a tough thing to deal with, losing with the team you're a part of."

If he is signed by Montreal, how will he be used and when could he even be available? While it's expected the Canadian government will reduce the mandatory quarantine for NHL players crossing the border into the country from 14 days to seven days, it's not entirely clear what that means for NCAA players, though the belief is that same change will apply to them as well.

There's a cap angle to this as well. After the Staal trade, Montreal has just $486,000 in cap space, which isn't enough to fit a max rookie deal for Caufield. So keep watch, because a corresponding move would need to occur.

As for the on-ice aspect, that Caufield's primary asset is his goal scoring would be welcomed by a Habs team that is 16th in offence since their hot start evaporated on. Feb. 13. Their power play has helped that number, because at 5-on-5 they rank 21st in offence in that time. But NCAA goals don't always immediately translate to NHL success. A time on the taxi squad or with AHL Laval could also be in the future.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin was asked for his view on Caufield potentially joining the team last month.

"It's gonna depend where [we are at] the deadline whenever he's done," Bergevin said. "He has progressed a lot in the last year, but again it's too early to tell you what the plans are, but I expect him to turn pro after this year. Where can he play once his season's over? That remains to be seen."

While the Caufield watch is on high alert in Montreal, in Edmonton they're wondering what's next for Caufield's teammate, Dylan Holloway.

Holloway was the 14th pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, scored 34 points in 22 games as a 19-year-old sophomore centre, and was on Canada's silver medal WJC team. He's also among the 10 finalists for this year's Hobey Baker.

As we await the trade deadline that is a little over two weeks out, both the Canadiens and Oilers could be adding a couple of their top prospects to the team any day now.

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