Stu Cowan: Canadiens promote Caufield, but debut delayed by cap woes

Top prospect joins taxi squad, but Habs don't have the salary-cap space to put him on the NHL roster at this point.

Laval Rocket's Cole Caufield, left, fights for control of the puck with Toronto Marlies' Teemu Kivihalme at Toronto's Coca-Cola Coliseum on April 9, 2021.

The Canadiens provided their fans with some excitement Friday morning when they called Cole Caufield up from the AHL’s Laval Rocket.

However, Canadiens fans will have to wait a little longer before they get to see Caufield play a game with the team. The question is how long?

The Canadiens have placed Caufield on their taxi squad and he took part in the team’s morning skate at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard ahead of Friday night’s game against the Calgary Flames at the Bell Centre.

After the skate, head coach Dominique Ducharme explained that the Canadiens couldn’t put Caufield in the lineup at this point even if they wanted to because they are up too tight against the NHL salary cap and they also have two defencemen joining the team next week. Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson — both acquired ahead of last Monday’s NHL trade deadline — are going through seven days of COVID-19 quarantine at an Edmonton hotel and will join their new teammates next week. The Canadiens play the Oilers next Monday and Wednesday.

Ducharme said the only way they could fit Caufield on the roster now is if there was an injury to another player.

The Canadiens will play the Ottawa Senators Saturday at the Bell Centre (4 p.m., TSN2, TSN5, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM) before heading out on a five-game road trip to Western Canada. Ducharme said he wasn’t certain yet if Caufield will make that road trip.

So, why bother calling him up?

Part of the reason is that the Rocket only has one game before April 30, scheduled for next Wednesday against the Belleville Senators. Another reason is that before Friday’s morning skate, Caufield had never practised with the Canadiens or played in a pre-season game since being selected in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 NHL Draft. That’s because of NCAA eligibility restrictions since he played the last two seasons at the University of Wisconsin. NCAA players can attend evaluation camps with NHL teams at their own expense, but they can’t attend full training camps or play in pre-season games.

This season, the 5-foot-7, 170-pound Caufield posted 30-22-52 totals in 31 games with Wisconsin to lead the NCAA in goals and points and he won the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in U.S. college hockey. In his first two games with the Rocket since leaving Wisconsin, the right-winger had 3-1-4 totals, including two game-winning goals.

“I think no matter where I’m playing I expect the most out of myself,” Caufield said. “I know that internally I have my goals and stuff like that. But as long as the team’s winning and I’m getting chances and stuff I think that’s the best way to put it. But, for sure, I hold myself to a high standard.”

Caufield, who is living in a condo near the Bell Centre, received a call from Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard on Thursday telling him he would be skating with the Canadiens on Friday morning.

“It’s an exciting experience for me just to be up here right now,” Caufield said after being on a line with Jake Evans and Michael Frolik at the morning skate. “It’s great to be on the ice with those guys and great to be in the meetings and stuff and just learn as much as I can. The coaching staff has been great, too. I’m just trying to work hard and do as much as I can to hopefully get that chance. But right now, I’m just focused on day-by-day things and doing the best I can.”

Calling Caufield up on Friday allowed him to experience an NHL game-day routine for the first time — even if he wasn’t playing — as well as getting to know some of the players he had only seen on TV and also get acquainted with the Bell Centre locker room. The Canadiens gave Caufield sweater No. 22.

“I didn’t really get to pick,” said Caufield, who wore No. 8 at Wisconsin and No. 44 with the Rocket. “Whatever number’s on me is what I’m wearing. So I’m just excited.”

The Canadiens have been patient with Caufield’s development, but there’s no doubt they could use the 20-year-old’s offensive skills and wicked shot in their lineup. Heading into Friday night’s game, the Canadiens were 1-4 in their previous five games while scoring only nine goals. Their power play was 2-for-25 in the previous nine games.

“I know they’re pretty excited,” Caufield said about Canadiens fans waiting for him to make his NHL debut. “I haven’t been on my phone since the (morning) skate, so I don’t really know too much of what’s going on. Just happy to be here and stuff and just going to do as much as I can and work as hard as I can while I’m here. Hopefully things turn out the right way and we’ll see what happens.”

  1. In two games with the AHL’s Laval Rocket, Cole Caufield has 3-1-4 totals, including two game-winning goals.

    Canadiens Game Day: Habs call up Cole Caufield from Laval Rocket

  2. Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller fights with Montreal Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot in the first period at Rogers Arena on March 10, 2021, Vancouver.

    Canadiens' Ben Chiarot returns to lineup and is still willing to fight

  3. Montreal Canadiens defenceman Shea Weber moves the puck during first period against the Calgary Flames in Montreal on April 14, 2021.

    What the Puck: Weber's woes symbolic of Canadiens' recent struggles

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