The Montreal Canadiens do not plan to be active before the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline on April 12, though forward prospect Cole Caufield could join them after his NCAA season ends.
Caufield was selected by Montreal in the first round (No. 15) of the 2019 NHL Draft and has scored 48 points (27 goals, 21 assists) in 29 games for the University of Wisconsin this season. He was unanimously named player of the year in the Big Ten Conference.
“There’s a big difference between the NCAA and the NHL,” Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin said Tuesday. “We’ll wait until the end of his season, then he can join us afterwards. Until he’s with us, we won’t know if he’s ready to play for the pros.”
Bergevin said the 20-year-old has made major strides during his sophomore season, which continues Tuesday when Wisconsin plays the University of Minnesota in the Big Ten Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament.
“I’ve watched games where his game without the puck, his commitment without the puck, took the biggest step for me,” Bergevin said. “He’s always been a goal-scorer … those type of players where they need just that one chance and it’s in the back of the net. That’s always been there. I remember seeing a clip [when] they lost the puck at the blue line and [Caufield] was the first guy back and he lifted the guy’s stick. I think his game without the puck has improved a lot.”
After adding forwards Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson, goalie Jake Allen and defensemen Joel Edmundson and Alexander Romanov this offseason, the Canadiens are close to the NHL salary cap of $81.5 million and likely will not be making any big moves before the trade deadline.
Bergevin sounded optimistic that the Canadiens won’t need to replace defenseman Ben Chiarot, who had hand surgery Monday for a fracture sustained in a fight March 10 against the Vancouver Canucks.
“Ben is not long term, he’ll be back (before the end of the regular season),” Bergevin said. “We said 6-8 weeks, so it’s probably going to be closer to six, hopefully. And then we have to be careful because spending his money knowing he’s coming back, we’ll have to reenter (him) in our team, so we’ll need cap space. So that really doesn’t change anything for us. We’re just really tight against the cap.”
The Canadiens reached the halfway point of the 56-game schedule Monday with a 4-2 win against the Winnipeg Jets. Montreal (13-8-7) is in fourth place in the seven-team Scotia North Division, two points ahead of the Calgary Flames. The top four teams will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“It’s a tough league. Every night it’s a battle and I expect the same down the road,” Bergevin said. “Every night it’s a one-goal league. [Monday] night was a one-goal game and then it’s an empty-net [goal]. So, every night, that’s what it is.”
The Canadiens started 8-2-2 but went 1-3-2 leading to coach Claude Julien being fired Feb. 24 and replaced by Dominique Ducharme.
Bergevin said he likes the fresh voice and small changes brought by Ducharme, who is 4-3-3 since taking over.
“On top of their game, we’re pretty good in net, we’re up there with the best in the League,” the GM said of goalies Carey Price and Allen. “I like our team. Our young players keep progressing. Yeah, they have some little peaks and valleys, but that’s part of being a young player. They care and they want to do well. So yeah, we have high expectations for ourselves.”
Those expectations include a return to the postseason. Montreal defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers last season before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round.
“We have to make the playoffs,” Bergevin said. “I feel we have a team to make the playoffs, and then once we get in, you know, I feel that anything’s possible.”