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Still: Are the Canadiens failing Cole Caufield?

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Of all the sad, shocking and strange storylines of the Montreal Canadiens miserable season, Cole Caufield’s scoring woes have to be near the top of the list.

The 2021 Hobey Baker winner was, along with Anaheim Ducks forward Trevor Zegras, the odds on favourite to pick up more silverware. Specifically, the Calder Trophy.

Last week, Zegras invented the ‘Dishigan’ to the delight of the hockey world and the horror of John Tortorella.

Caufield played on the right of Laurent Dauphin and Mathieu Perreault on the third line in the Habs 4-1 loss to the St.Louis Blues.

Pretty stark difference.

The Wisconsin native has certainly struggled this year. But the club he plays for doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to developing prospects. They have tried and failed to graduate their highly skilled draft picks into point-producing professionals.

The Habs cannot afford to do the same with one of the most important draft picks they’ve made this century. The fear that they are in the process of doing so is filling their fans with anxiety. And apathy doesn’t feel far away.

If not now, when?

If you asked head coach Dominique Ducharme off the record whether Caufield should be in the NHL or the AHL right now, he’d almost certainly answer down with the Laval Rocket. Many would likely say the same thing based on the combination of his lack of production and confidence so far this season.

But he is here now.

The Habs have always struggled to set their prospects up for success. Caufield has been a goal machine everywhere he has gone. It’s not exactly a controversial take. He needs to play with similarly skilled players to maximize his talents. Unfortunately for Ducharme, there aren’t a lot of those on the Montreal Canadiens in 2021. Either by design or thanks to the injury bug.

But playing him with AHL caliber players in the best league in the world has to be the worst of all the bad options available to the club.

Yes, he’d be exposed to more difficult matchups next to Nick Suzuki. And there wouldn’t be much attention to detail defensively when he and Jonathan Drouin would be on the ice together.

But the Habs have lost nearly 80 percent of the games they’ve played so far this season. There are 11 veterans out injured. They are the first team to lose 20 games. The club are much closer to Shane Wright than the Stanley Cup. Player development has to take precedence over winning.

Caufield is the crown jewel of the team’s young core. He’s the most likely to become an offensive game-breaker. New executive vice-president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton is trying to accurately assess the assets at his disposal. Ducharme would not only be doing right by the young man by giving him the best possible chance to snap his nine game scoring drought. He would also be giving his new boss the chance to properly do his job.

Why live in fear?

When asked this week about the decision to play Jake Evans on the wing in the top six instead of Caufield or the newly called up Jesse Ylonen, Ducharme gave this answer.

“Do you want to expose a young guy going toe-to-toe every shift Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews tomorrow? Or against MacKinnon and Rantanen? Or last night against Stamkos and Palat every shift?”

It’s such a negative way to approach the situation. Ducharme has to be frustrated, no matter how good of a job he does hiding it. Wins might have been most important a month ago. He has to realize that the most likely route to staying as head coach of the team through a different administration next season is if young players improve under his watch.

Things seem to be going according to plan with Ryan Poehling and Alexander Romanov. Both have taken their chances and run with them with the big club. They’ve become arguably the two best storylines on the team. There has been marked improvement in their confidence and consistency.

It hasn’t been quite the same for Suzuki and Caufield. After going on a tear in late October and early November, Suzuki has only mustered four points in 14 games. Caufield has clearly regressed, although he has been much more noticeable the past five games. That was punctuated by him ringing a shot off the post in the opening moments of the Montreal Canadiens loss to the Blues.

If those two players find their games, the likelihood that Ducharme can save his job improves dramatically. The head coach must realize the incredible potential of those two rekindling their playoff chemistry. The timing is perfect to give it one last chance. If it works, great. If not, Caufield plays a starring role on the Rocket when the team’s health improves in the coming weeks.

Make a choice and stick with it

It’s clear that calling up Caufield after six games in Laval wasn’t the right decision. His production said one thing but having watched him at Place Bell, it was clear he wasn’t dominating the AHL.

If the Montreal Canadiens determine that the Rocket is the best place for him when players start returning from IR, then they should stick with it. For 20 to 30 games at least. The best case scenario for the club would be to send Caufield down to the AHL in late December of early January. He would be able to play there through the Olympic break in February. After that, the team could re-evaluate his progress with a much larger sample size just before bodies get moved at the trade deadline.

The worst thing the club could do is start to yoyo Caufield between the AHL and NHL. No matter the injury situation. If Alex Belzile, Michael Pezzetta and Laurent Dauphin have to cash big league cheques the rest of the season, so be it.

Caufield cannot have his confidence shattered. That would be a devastating way to start the Gorton era. His progression is paramount to the future success of the Montreal Canadiens.

It’s time to start treating him like it.

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