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Still: Caufield call up confirms Canadiens are close to change

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He’s back. Goal Caufield has returned to the Montreal Canadiens.

After just six games with the Laval Rocket, Cole Caufield was called up to the big club this afternoon. He’s expected to be in uniform tonight when the Habs host the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Bell Centre.

Caufield had a relatively successful stint down on the farm. The 20-year old had two goals and three assists in six games with the Rocket. He capped off his time in the American Hockey League with the game-tying goal and a shootout marker in Laval’s 6-5 victory over the Marlies last night. Both were pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Where will he play tonight against the Penguins? How many minutes will he play? What wave of the power-play will he be on?

These are all the questions that Montreal Canadiens fans are asking right now. There hasn’t been a 5-foot-7-inch man capable of generating such fascination in this province since Louis Cyr was lifting boulders for fun.

It’s more what Caufield and the other kids he’s playing with tonight say about where the Habs organization is headed. The changing outlook of the club. In both the short and the long-term.

In the here and now

While there has been understandable frustration from Habs fans on talk radio and on social media about the club’s drafting and developing of young players during general manager’s Marc Bergevin’s tenure, the children of the reset aren’t just coming. They are here now.

With Cayden Primeau set to make his second straight start, the Canadiens will have five players playing tonight that are 22-years old and younger. Nick Suzuki, Alexander Romanov, Ryan Poehling, Cole Caufield and Mattias Norlinder. Four of those five are either rookies or sophomores in the league. Not to mention Jake Evans, who has only played 74 career games.

Will they stick around the entire season? In the case of Norlinder, most likely not. But with centreman Adam Brooks claimed off waivers by the Vegas Golden Knights, there is a chance four will stick with the Montreal Canadiens this year.

The fact that they are being given a chance suggests two things. First, that the veterans on this team who aren’t injured aren’t getting the job done. With a record of 4-12-2 on the season, it’s hard to disagree with that.

Second is that perhaps the Habs have already begun to shift their focus to the future beyond this season. American Thanksgiving is a week away. That is the Rubicon for NHL teams. A evaluation point for each club as to whether they will be a playoff team or not. It is a crucial part of the Canadiens season if they had aspirations of reaching the playoffs with games against Pittsburgh, Nashville and Washington lying between them and Nov. 25th.

Sure, injuries are playing a major factor. That cannot be denied. But by calling up Caufield to join the rest of the kids, the team is making a statement that the future is here today. Prospect development at the NHL level will be a goal going forward the rest of the season.

The big picture

Will all those players be relied upon in crucial roles tonight against the Penguins. Most likely not.

But with Suzuki’s huge raise kicking in next year and the Montreal Canadiens looking like they will be sellers at the trade deadline, those kids will have to take steps to fill the holes that will be open on this team as soon as next year.

With Ben Chiarot’s trade value trending at an all-time high and in the final year of his contract, he could fetch a decent return. Artturi Lehkonen could be had for a mid-tier prospect or pick. What to do with Tyler Toffoli? Could Paul Byron come back healthy and be a trade target if the Habs eat some of his contract?

The Canadiens aren’t embarking on a rebuild. But in terms of asset management in a lost season, the club will have to make some hard choices in regards to their cap situation next year.

Who will be called upon to seize those open roster spots? Or grow into bigger roles on the team? These kids Montreal Canadiens fans will get to see tonight. Not to mention Kaiden Guhle and Jesse Ylonen, who are in the WHL and AHL respectively but not far away from the big leagues.

How many will be game-breakers? How many will fail and fall by the wayside? How many will be hard-working, decent pro players?

There’s a reason there are a lot of questions. Because there are so few answers right now. How do you get them? By evaluating those kids on the grandest stage of them all.

Those youngsters will provide those answers based on the chances they are given. And whether they are able to seize those chances.

Starting tonight against the Penguins.

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