The Montreal Canadiens will likely not wait too long to sign Cole Caufield to an extension during this season, as the real threat of an offer sheet looms next summer.
Over the last few months, the Canadiens have been moving out long-term contracts that would hamper their ability to sign their top youngsters to lucrative contracts. Caufield is likely to be the first major signing of the Kent Hughes era as it pertains to key restricted free agents within the organization, and the belief around the league is that it will get done prior to or during the season in order to avoid the risk of offer sheets. With Caufield now entering the last year of his entry-level contract (ELC), he’s been eligible to negotiate an extension since July 13 and it looks likely that he’ll be signing his new contract sooner rather than later.
A Risk For The Montreal Canadiens?
Cole Caufield is an electrifying player that had quite the rollercoaster of a calendar year. Breaking out in the NHL during the 2021 NHL Playoffs alongside sophomore Nick Suzuki, starting the following season on the top-line, ending up in the minors within a month of the 2021-2022 season, scoring just one goal in 30 games under Dominque Ducharme and then exploding for 35 points in 37 games under Martin St. Louis. That’s a heck of a year, but finishing it off as strong as he did, scoring 22 goals in just 35 games, gives the Canadiens an idea of what levels Caufield could reach as he continues to develop in the NHL. However, a general manager must tread lightly in these situations and get some assurance that this offensive uptick is sustainable on the long term.
Caufield finishing off the year strong is encouraging, but signing him immediately may be too risky a move for Hughes and the Canadiens at this junction. The Canadiens will likely want to see if Caufield’s offensive uptick in the second half of the previous season is sustainable moving forward before opening up the vault and committing to him long-term, which is a fair approach. Nick Suzuki, for example, signed his 8-year contract in August of 2021, 11 months before his ELC was set to expire, and it will likely be a very valuable deal for the club for many years to come if he continues to improve. However, the reason the Canadiens took that risk is that Suzuki already had nearly 160 NHL games played by that point (regular season and playoffs combined), while Caufield only has 97 games played, and Suzuki had shown constant progression during that span.
The Risk Of Offer Sheets
If Caufield can hit the ground running this season, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see the Canadiens lock him up by Christmas to get him at a better cap hit early on and ensure that he isn’t poached on the open market with an offer sheet after July 1, 2023. Usually, NCAA players who burn the first year of their ELC to play in the NHL at the end of the season aren’t eligible for offer sheets when their contracts expire, and that’s because they don’t usually play more than ten games to close out the calendar year. Classified as 10.2 (c) Restricted Free Agents, these players are exempt from receiving offer sheets from a rival club if they play ten games or less in the season when they burn the first year of their ELC. Caufield played ten games with the Montreal Canadiens during the 2021-2022 season, and played another 20 games in the playoffs, meaning that he crossed the threshold and would be considered a regular RFA moving forward, thus making him a prime target for offer sheets.
The Montreal Canadiens will have a few contract comparables they can use to assess Cole Caufield’s value at this junction in his career and in the future. It isn’t uncommon to see players still on their ELCs sign a long-term extension mid-season, as teams are often hesitant to give out big contracts without being sure of the risk they’re taking. We’ve seen other top forwards like Jake Guentzel or Jamie Benn sign long-term deals in the middle of a season in the past, so it wouldn’t be outlandish to expect some news on this front over the next couple of months as the Canadiens continue to tweak their salary structure moving forward.
A lot of what comes next will hinge on how Caufield performs early on, but the Montreal Canadiens brass know what they have in Caufield, and, if they can develop him further under the tutelage of Martin St. Louis, a long-term deal would be well worth the risk.