Back in March, Cole Caufield announced that he was going to remain at Wisconsin for his freshman season. However, with the viability of the 2020-21 NCAA season in serious question, it’s quite possible that those plans could change.
As things stand, the recent announcement that the NCAA will allow players to play what they call junior hockey (note that this does not include the CHL at that remains a pro league to them) and some teams already pulling the plug leaves this year in jeopardy. At a minimum, their season would be shortened if they did get up and running later on.
To that end, if they were to have a condensed winter schedule and run from January through March or April, is that enough of a season from a development perspective? While Caufield needs to add strength before turning pro, a short schedule that would still predominantly be weekend games would only be what, a 20-25 game season at most? That’s not a lot of playing time for someone that’s viewed as one of Montreal’s top prospects.
Even that discussion could be moot if fans aren’t allowed in arenas. While the NHL benefits from a sizable TV deal that makes playing without fans temporarily justifiable (if not all that profitable), the NCAA certainly doesn’t have that type of television contract…at least in hockey. So that’s another potential impediment to Caufield’s return plans.
So what are the other options?
He can turn pro as many expected him to a few months ago which would give him eligibility to play in Montreal or Laval. Even though he’s junior-aged, he’s eligible to play for the Rocket as he wasn’t drafted out of the CHL. Of course, the same potential problem exists with fans in arenas. The AHL can’t afford to have games without fans for the same reason the NCAA does. They’ve pushed the start of their season back to December like the NHL has and it wouldn’t be shocking to see that delayed further. It’s also difficult to envision them playing a full season no matter what.
Of course, he could also turn pro and stay with the Canadiens whenever next season starts but it certainly seems that management doesn’t believe that he’s ready to play regularly in Montreal so that’s not an ideal scenario either.
Caufield can also go to junior hockey as he was drafted by the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. They’re pegged to be one of the better teams in that league next season and are one of two teams vying to host the 2021 Memorial Cup. While dropping to the junior level may be a bit of a step back, he’d at least be going into a program that has eyes on contending this season and could be playing well into the spring if they won the tournament bid. That would probably take him out of the equation to join the Habs late in the year given that the OHL and NHL are on a similar timeline for their schedule plans but an extended playoff run would help his development. However, the same question that exists for the NCAA and AHL is in play here as the league is not viable without gate revenue.
There is one other option and while it seems outlandish at first, it would at least guarantee some playing time. With international leagues set to start up as scheduled, Caufield could leave college and try to find a spot on a team overseas for a year. I’m not a big fan of that option but at this point, it has to be at least mentioned and others in his situation have gone that way already.
At this point, even with Caufield and the Habs announcing that the plan is for him to stay at Wisconsin for next season, it actually seems to be far from a guarantee from happening. However, all of the other avenues present questions of their own. All of a sudden, his short-term playing future is much more uncertain now than it was just two months ago.