The 2020-21 season was one to remember for Cole Caufield.
From major NCAA awards, a World Junior Championship gold medal and an appearance in the Stanley Cup final, the world was in Caufield's hands. He looks like one of the clear favorites to win the Calder Trophy this season, helping to start a bright future for the team's prized prospect.
Well, his first full NHL season has been anything but ideal.
Caufield was sent down to AHL Laval on Monday, putting a pause on his NHL tenure after recording just one assist in 10 games. Given he had four goals and five points in 10 NHL regular season games last year before notching 12 points in 20 post-season contests as a 20-year-old rookie, it's been a big disappointment.
But sending him back to Laval? That's the right call.
Caufield hasn't looked like he did a year ago: a youngster beaming with all the confidence in the world. But he was also underutilized, too. Caufield averaged 11:09 of 5-on-5 ice time in those 10 games, beating out only Mathieu Perreault, Joel Armia, Artturi Lehkonen and Cedric Paquette among players Habs forwards with at least eight games played. Caufield is third among Canadiens forwards with 9.14 shots-per-60, but with nothing to show for (same with Armia and Brendan Gallagher above him), it doesn't mean a whole lot.
Has he played terribly? Not exactly. It's safe to say he's been snakebitten because the stats suggest he has done well given his lack of ice time. But the actual stats that contribute to the scoresheet – goals and assists – simply aren't there.
And for a young forward with so much potential, you want his confidence to be sky-high like it was during the playoffs when nothing seemed to bother him. Caufield isn't at that point now, and a stint with a Laval team that will give him every opportunity to be a star could be extremely beneficial. Laval sits sixth in the ultra-competitive North Division, but they go by points percentage in the AHL. So while the standings might suggest one thing, Laval has the second-most points in the division behind Cleveland's 11. It's going to be a tight race all season, and that type of competitive energy could give Caufield the boost he needs.
The Canadiens are a disaster right now, and subjecting one of your top stars to a minuscule role isn't going to help. Just look at how Montreal butchered the development of Jesperi Kotkaniemi early on. He found some confidence when he himself got sent back to the AHL, but it never really worked out in the long run. Caufield, though, is one of the best natural goal-scorers in the prospect landscape today. That's what he does: put pucks in the net. So when it doesn't work out, it can get to you, especially when you're a player of Caufield's caliber.
Caufield uses his speed, vision and his wrist shot to do the most damage possible. Caufield has been touted as one of the game's next top snipers for a reason. Regardless of where he landed, the hype was going to follow Caufield. It just helped that one of the biggest organizations in the world took the undersized forward on. Playing limited minutes on the third time of a team destined for the basement isn't going to help his development. Laval is a high-energy, offense-oriented club. That's going to suit Caufield in the short-term, and, maybe the call ends up being to leave him there for the team's Calder Cup effort.
This isn't a punishment for poor play. It's opening the door to a new opportunity, and one that should really help take Caufield's development a long way. Ideally, getting the chemistry between Caufield and Nick Suzuki would be the spice Caufield needed, but that just simply isn't the reality right now. Sending Caufield back to the minors – where he thrived in his first two pro games last year – should help him get his confidence back before an eventual NHL return.
And it should be 100 percent worth it.