Canadiens still have to make the Caufield-Suzuki combo click
The Montreal Canadiens and winger Cole Caufield agreed to an eight-year, $62.8-million extension over the weekend. For Montreal, it’s a massive bet on one of their core young players – a player they are betting on to spearhead a successful rebuild under general manager Kent Hughes.
Long-term extensions for young players have become more popular in recent years, with teams willing to bet aggressively on a player’s upside and expected development.
If the player becomes a star, the long-term contract extension suddenly becomes a cap-friendly contract – players like Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl and Colorado’s Cale Makar signed long-term deals early in their careers, and both now carry exceptionally friendly cap hits, owing in large part to their development into superstars.
Of course, there’s always the downside risk of paying a guy aggressively early and him not developing. The Chicago Blackhawks and defenceman Seth Jones’ nightmarish deal immediately come to mind there.
The good news in the case of Montreal and Caufield is they aren’t betting blindly. Caufield’s already shown real scoring touch at the NHL level, averaging 35 goals per 82 games played to start his career.
Caufield has done that on a team very limited on talent, deep in the throes of a rebuild. If you bring in total measures of production like Goals Above Replacement, Caufield’s production comparables are a respectable group:
Caufield has been worth about a third of a goal versus replacement-level talent every 60 minutes played, and again, has done that on a porous Montreal team. The immediate comparables are encouraging though. Players like Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux have ended up building remarkable career profiles, and Andrei Svechnikov is well on his way there.
That said, this group also includes a few players you wouldn’t necessarily sign to max deals: Nick Schmaltz and Alex Newhook types are well-defined NHLers, but not necessarily core pieces you build a franchise around.
I want to dig a bit further on the franchise-building aspect of this, because there’s one piece of data that I think Montreal needs to figure out as they envision what a contending lineup looks like in the next couple of years. Caufield’s scoring touch alone – combined with the context of playing in a very tough situation early in his career – justifies a big piece of a long-term contract extension. But if there’s one concerning piece, it’s that Caufield and another core Montreal player, centre Nick Suzuki, haven’t been able to succeed as a unit.
Perhaps it’s the result of the broader rebuild, the ever-changing lineups, and the forcing of young players into the toughest possible matchups against more established and experienced forwards around the league. But Caufield and Suzuki’s numbers together early on have been grim, and notably, both are better when away from one another:
We talk a lot, rightfully so I’d argue, about chemistry – line combinations, deployment strategies, and how to get more out of players by putting them in positions to succeed. And this is still a league that is decided on goal differentials – not how many goals you score, or how many goal you suppress, but a combination of the two.
Caufield and Suzuki seem like logical fits for one another: an aggressive attacker with scoring touch pared with a serious playmaker. But sustained success hasn’t materialized yet. And irrespective of whether Montreal made the right bet on extending Caufield, the Canadiens have to figure out how to either make this duo work, or find other options to sprinkle around the lineup.
There’s plenty of reason to be excited about the extension, but Montreal needs to figure out how to maximize the potential of both Caufield and Suzuki. Get there, and you will start to see the wins pile up.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey