Canadiens mailbag: What might a Cole Caufield contract extension look like?

Montreal Canadiens' Cole Caufield celebrates a goal past Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Matt Murray during second period NHL hockey action in Montreal, on Wednesday, October 12, 2022. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

BROSSARD, Que. — Always fun diving into a new mailbag. This first one of the 2022-23 season is loaded with some interesting questions, so let’s plunge into them from the high board.

A question I wish I could give a direct answer to, but I’m not the only one who isn’t quite sure.

It’s easy to look at Caufield’s situation and suggest the Canadiens should lock him up for eight years immediately, but it’s hard to say what that kind of deal would look like right now.

You’d think if it was on offer—and it’s not as of this moment, with sources indicating no formal negotiations having begun between general manager Kent Hughes and Caufield’s agent, Pat Brisson—it would be reasonable to assume Montreal’s desire would be to have it carry an average annual salary that’s less than what Nick Suzuki makes.

Surely, Caufield would love to have the security an eight-year deal provides, and we’re guessing he wouldn’t mind not having to think about another contract for a long time.

But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said on Tuesday that the salary cap could increase by over $4 million for next season. With projections bringing the upper limit to well over $90 million two years from now, Caufield and Brisson might think they’d be giving the Canadiens too much of a discount if they went long right now.

Goalscoring has always been paid for as a premium asset and Caufield scores goals. Lots of them, despite his measly one-goal output through the first 30 games of last season. He has 25 in his last 41 games.

Perhaps that pace isn’t quite sustainable, but that’s not a small sample.

And whether that pace is or isn’t sustainable, Caufield isn’t lacking in self-belief. The idea that he’d bet on himself on a shorter-term deal that still puts a lot of money in his bank account is easy to buy, especially considering what he could earn on the following contract if he wins that bet.

I look at what Jason Robertson did with the Dallas Stars—after scoring 41 goals as a 22-year-old—and see a template Caufield could go for this coming summer if he rides this season out and produces at a similar rate to what he has since halfway through last season.

It wasn’t long after turning 23 that Robertson cashed in his lofty production for a $7.75-million salary over each of the next four years. If Caufield signed for a similar salary over, say, three years, you could say the value would be there for both him and the Canadiens.

From their end of it, it would still be a fraction less than Suzuki makes and would enable them to be paying Caufield a bit less than he could potentially earn in at least one year in which the team is expected to be much more competitive. And on Caufield’s, it’s not as if he’ll feel he’s selling himself short signing a deal like that.

I don’t see a reason for him and Brisson to pick up the phone right now and ask for an eight-year contract to get settled immediately.

As for the Canadiens, if they want to go that route, inflation of the cap, in addition to Caufield’s proven potential, might prevent them from saving the kind of money they’d hope to by getting this done sooner.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so quiet on this front.

I don’t know if I’d qualify it as a game of chicken between both sides, but I see value in both waiting to see what happens this season before acting.

Hi Todd,

Believe it or not, I presented your question to Chris Wideman on Tuesday because it was more than fair.

Wideman agreed.

The 32-year-old defenceman conceded that two shot attempts and just one shot on net through four games isn’t near enough on his end.

“For sure I can shoot more,” he said. “There’s no doubt it would open up more scoring opportunities for the guys, and it’s a focus of mine.”

But he also provided context on his role on the power play, which obviously includes using his skating to start the rush and mostly centres on moving the puck in the zone to his unit’s primary shooters in Caufield and Nick Suzuki.

“I’m definitely trying to get them the puck,” Wideman said. “I think Cole’s definitely one of the best young shooters in the game, and Nick’s able to shoot and make plays off his strong side.

“I think it would be a fair criticism to say I probably don’t shoot enough, but at the same time there’s different things that we’re trying to accomplish. I think that if you look at a power play’s success, if you’re hovering around 20 per cent, you’re pretty happy. I think we’ve had opportunities in every game to pop one in and we’d be probably around that number and I don’t think we’d be having conversations about the power play. It’s probably one of those things where when you’re getting a few bounces and pucks are going in it kind of masks some of the deficiencies you might have. It’s a work in progress.”

Part of the work, though, as Wideman conceded, has to be his willingness to shoot from up top.

He had just 19 shots and 39 attempts in 63 games on Montreal’s power play last season and if he had generated a few more, he likely would’ve notched at least one goal and had more than 12 assists in those situations. 

Wideman made it clear, though, he’s not going to shoot just to shoot.

“If it’s a shot that I don’t think I can get through, there’s no point taking it,” he said. “And I’m confident that, in moving it to any of the guys out there, we’ll make plays.”

Wideman knows the Canadiens have to start converting them.

“I think we’ve moved it around pretty well but, again, you’re only as good as your results and, so far, we don’t have any,” he said. “We’re focused on it and looking forward to putting it in the back of the net.”

My thoughts are Kirby Dach’s play has been really strong through the first four games, and the underlying numbers back that up.

At even strength, Dach leads the Canadiens expected goals percentage (48.71), fenwick (60.1), he’s second in scoring chance differential and is producing high-danger chances at a 2-to-1 rate.

I’m probably not alone in thinking his first goal in a Canadiens uniform—the overtime winner against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday—is the first of many points he’ll begin producing.

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“He’s been good,” said Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen on Wednesday. “He’s obviously opened my eyes at the beginning of camp, with his skill and his size, and I played against him his first year in Chicago—the pandemic year—and you could tell he had skill there. I was in St. Louis at the time and he came in with a very high pedigree. Being able to play here and maybe loosen his game up, play a bit freer, as people have been saying around here, and I think he’s got a really bright future.

“It’s a new team, a new challenge, and he’s only 21. He’s got high-end skill, and in practice it’s really high-end, and I think he’s going to be able to really flourish here once he really gets comfortable. It’s a big change, especially at a young age when you’re still trying to figure everything out.”

I’ve seen a really creative puck carrier, and a player with good hands.

So has Allen.

“He’s got really soft mitts for a big guy,” he said. “He can move his feet and shoot the puck at the same time, and that’s a skill that not a lot of people talk about. He’s just good. He’s got soft hands and good vision, so I think he’s going to score a lot of goals in this league once he finds his groove here. Was a big one for him the other night just to break the ice and get him going, so it was good to see.”

I asked Martin St. Louis how he feels Dach is doing, and he said, “I like his poise and, obviously, his reach.”

“He’s got a pretty annoying stick to be playing against,” St. Louis added. “He’s got quite the reach, so he can disrupt. And I think the more he plays, the more comfortable he will be in where to go on the ice and why he’s there. It takes a little time. He’s adjusting to a new group and a new city, but the abilities he has to protect pucks, manage pucks and drive the offence is there. We’ve just gotta give him a bit of time to put it all together with the new concepts.”

I have a feeling this a question that’s going to come up a lot over the next few years, and thankfully for the Canadiens it’s not one they have to have answered so quickly.

I have to think it’s a mandate for the amateur scouting staff to identify some future No. 1 goaltenders as they prepare for the upcoming draft, but the idea that one will develop internally within the same time frame as the team entering its competitive window is a stretch.

I think a lot of people are giving up on the idea that Cayden Primeau can become the guy who takes the puck and runs with it, but I think that’s premature. He’s 23, developing, and it takes a long time to graduate to the NHL from his position.

That said, trade is likely going to be the route to bolster the position.

With Jake Allen in place for two more seasons after this one, it’s not something that immediately needs to be addressed.

But the Canadiens are going to have to plan.

The good thing is, they’re developing a team here that likely won’t need to depend on a goaltender the way it did on Price throughout all his time in a Canadiens uniform. As we’ve seen with other teams constructed as such, it’s more necessary to have a goaltender that can come up with big saves at key moments than it is to have one who is unquestionably the best player on the team every night.

I don’t think what we’re seeing from him right now is at all reminiscent of last year, except for the stat line, which currently reads zeroes across the board.

The difference on that end is Brendan Gallagher hasn’t had any luck so far, whereas last season he wasn’t generating enough quality chances to run better numbers.

Do I think we’ll see Gallagher score 30 goals again in this league? I wouldn’t put it past him, though I also wouldn’t necessarily bet on that.

I do believe he can still score more than 20, and the way he’s playing makes me think he’ll do that again this season. I see an evolution in his style, which I covered off in this notebook from Tuesday, and I like that he’s produced 20 scoring chances through five games despite being on the ice for just 15 face-offs in the offensive zone versus 27 outside of it.

A lot.

Not that Suzuki has necessarily been put to the test all that much.

We’ll see how he handles it when the Canadiens go through an extended losing streak—they’re bound to at one point or another this season—and he’s facing all kinds of questions about how he’s handling his role in digging the team out of it.

But I see someone who’s so much more comfortable with the media than he was when he first arrived in Montreal, and that is certainly serving him well in his new role.

It is early, but I also think there’s something to be said of Suzuki’s on-ice performance so far. We can’t forget that he’s the youngest captain in Canadiens history and playing through the first season of an eight-year, $63-million contract and under a ton of pressure to perform despite menial expectations for the team.

That Suzuki has two goals and five points through four games says a lot about how he handles pressure—especially considering he missed almost all of training camp with upper- and lower-body injuries.

Again, it’s early, but he’s on pace for career highs. I expect he’ll achieve them.

If the 23-year-old does, it’ll only reinforce why the Canadiens weren’t wrong to make him captain so soon. It will also serve to reinforce the notion that he doesn’t just handle pressure well, he thrives on it.

That Suzuki’s produced at a higher point-per-game click in the playoffs than the regular season throughout his young career already suggests he thrives on pressure.

My thoughts are it’s a short-term one, especially if he keeps playing as well as he has so far this season.

Imagine getting a first-round pick just to take on the final year of Sean Monahan’s contract and then flipping it for another first-rounder ahead of this year’s trade deadline.

I know Hughes must be imagining it. He likely was the minute he made the trade with Calgary this past summer.

And yeah, if Monahan stays healthy and continues to play well, it’s entirely predictable there will be a big lobby from the fans—and even some media members—to have Hughes sign him to an extension and keep him in Montreal. Big, versatile, 28-year-old centres capable of playing in all situations and wielding positive influence in the room are typically worth keeping, and there will be plenty of people banging that drum.

But a team like the Canadiens—one in the early stages of a rebuild and one attempting to collect as many premium future assets as possible to advance quicker—is best off ignoring that noise.

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