That it pays him a fraction less than what No. 1 on the list earns is a big win for the franchise.
The Canadiens wanted to get the premium goal scorer under contract for as long as possible and at a number that would be under captain Nick Suzuki’s $7.87-million average salary and, on Monday morning, they announced they had achieved exactly that by signing Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8-million deal. The contract features a $10-million signing bonus spread over the first two years and a clause that gives him the right to deny a trade to 15 teams in the sixth year, 10 in the seventh and five in the eighth.
We’re talking about a player who had scored 26 goals in 46 games before his season was cut short by a shoulder injury; a player who was on pace for 46 goals over a full 82-game season; a player who still produced 48 goals over his last 83 regular-season games to only reinforce that he was going to continue doing in the NHL what he had done at every other level prior to and following being drafted 15th overall in 2019.
With the league’s salary cap expected to spike in the summer of 2024 and continue rising exponentially thereafter, the Canadiens getting that player under contract for less than what Suzuki signed for two years prior — an eight-year, $63-million deal that kicked in last summer — is a coup.
Caufield wins big, too.
Coming off shoulder surgery, and only 123 games into his NHL career, he’s being given the type of security any 22-year-old in the league would only dream of having, and he’ll have plenty of runway to earn even bigger bucks when his contract expires at age 30.
Caufield having a measure of control over where he can be traded (on the back end of the deal) is also a nice bonus on top of the actual bonus of having $5 million deposited into his bank account in each of the next two Julys.
But the biggest thing that had the 5-foot-7 Wisconsinite smiling ear-to-ear when holding court with the media via Zoom Monday afternoon was the opportunity to remain with the Canadiens for the foreseeable future.
“I think with the way this organization’s going, the plan that’s intact, all that stuff, it makes a lot of sense,” Caufield said. “I love being there. It’s a second home, or first home, whatever you want to call it for me, so I’m excited to be there long-term … I’m very excited and very lucky to be a part of the Montreal Canadiens for a long time.”
He could’ve opted to be a part of them for a shorter time, to push for a bridge contract that would still fill his coffer, give him time to prove up his value even more and set him up for a massive payday at a time when he’d be holding the hammer in negotiations.
But for Caufield — who said signing for as much as $62.8 million was something he couldn’t have even fathomed when he dreamed of cashing in as an NHLer — it clearly wasn’t just about the money.
“We have a great coaching staff, great management, it’s all heading in the right direction, so to be a part of something like this and to be able to win probably faster than doing something else and taking less money to try to making something more later really wasn’t my mindset,” he said. “I want to be a team guy. That’s what I am. I want to be a leader on this team and things like that, so I think, at the end of the day, it’s good for both sides and we’re all pretty excited about it.”
Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes has to be elated about it.
Caufield’s deal, coupled with Suzuki’s, gives the GM the financial flexibility to continue building the Canadiens into a contender, with the salary cap potentially rising as high as $88 million by summer of 2024 and perhaps exceeding $100 million in and around the time both players will be into their primes and more money will be available to him due to other contracts expiring.
Caufield and Suzuki are already top-line talents, star players bordering on superstardom, and they’re locked into the types of deals that could very well be on offer to second-line players moving forward.
The Canadiens will depend on them for much more than just offensive production.
Suzuki’s and Caufield’s ability to lead will be instrumental in the team advancing quickly to contender status — especially in the Atlantic Division, which is replete with talented and emerging teams — and they know it.
“We’re excited for this challenge,” Caufield said. “I think the team that can be built around us is very exciting. Every year we kind of learn a little bit more and gain a bit more experience under our belts. We’ve got some older guys on the team and they’re teaching us a lot of things too. I know we’ve got a tough division, but I think in a couple of years we should be able to compete in this division. It might be one of the toughest in hockey, if not the best, so for us, I think it’s a challenge in every day getting better and growing our team, growing our game. I’m excited for what’s to come and having Nick by my side.”
They’ve proven to be a dynamic duo dating back to the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when Suzuki emerged as a potential star and Caufield burst onto his wing with four goals and 12 points in 20 postseason games.
He has since produced 49 goals in 113 regular season games, or more than any player from his draft class not named Jack Hughes — Caufield’s former linemate from the United States National Development team who was chosen first overall by the New Jersey Devils.
Hughes is emerging as a Hart Trophy contender, while Caufield is well on his way to showing he can be one of the most electric players in the game.
And with 84 points so far in the NHL, there’s reason to believe this young player has only scratched the surface of his massive offensive potential.
Caufield has also shown signs, under Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis, that he can be an even more dynamic player than he was at prior levels, and he has ambition to prove himself as more than just a goal scorer over the coming years.
“I think there’s a lot more to my game that needs work and, for me, it’s just about completing my game all around,” Caufield said. “I think every year, wherever I’ve played, I’ve gotten better and it’s just my mindset every summer going into the year.”
He feels he’s in the right place to capitalize on that mindset.
“I know we’ve got a great skill development coach (Adam Nicholas) on our team, and coaching staff, management,” Caufield said. “They’re all looking to go in the same direction and I’m just really excited to be a part of it.”
Hughes and Canadiens executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton are betting Caufield will be much more than just a part of it, hence handing him a contract that puts him on near-equal footing to Suzuki.
Still, Caufield is being paid less and doesn’t appear to have one iota of regret about it.
“That’s our guy, that’s our leader. Everyone around knows that,” Caufield said of Suzuki. “It’s still a heck of a lot of money, so I’m not complaining about anything about that.”
Neither are the Canadiens.
They got their best goal scorer and most exciting player signed to what is likely to become a bargain contract — it’s likely to look like one sooner rather than later — and in doing so were able to overcome market forces that could’ve interfered with how they view the hierarchy of their team.
Again, that’s a big win.