SOUTH BEND, IN - When the highly sought after college free agent Drake Caggiula chose to sign with the Edmonton Oilers in May of 2016, that organization's hockey operations likened his play style to that of Boston's Brad Marchand and Montreal's Brendan Gallagher. Both established professionals make up for their lack of height (5'9") with the energy they bring.
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Playing an aggressive style, protecting the puck and providing offensive contributions were similar expectations for Caggiula.
At the University of North Dakota, Caggiula was a tenacious bulldog of a player. A "gritty buzzsaw of a winger" according to his Elite Prospects profile. Appearing in 39 games for UND in his final season (2015-16), Caggiula scored 25 goals and added 26 assists.
He was recognized as the Most Outstanding Player at the 2016 NCAA Frozen Four. Numerous teams courted the young prospect, and Blackhawks Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman confirmed on Monday that Chicago was on the short list. He could have very well begun his NHL career with the Blackhawks.
"We were one of the teams, I think it came down to Chicago and Edmonton," said Bowman. "We didn't get him then, but we've followed his progress over the last couple of years."
Chicago made a trade with Edmonton on Sunday, sending defenseman Brandon Manning and prospect Robin Norell to the Oilers in exchange for Caggiula and defenseman Jason Garrison. The team has since placed Garrison on waivers with the intention of assigning him to the American Hockey League's Rockford IceHogs. Caggiula, however, will join Chicago likely before the end of the week, after securing his visa.
On the flip side, the trade gives Manning, an offseason free-agent signing who was a healthy scratch since Dec. 12, a fresh start.
"When in a situation where you have a player who isn't playing much and you know that he's looking for a better opportunity, you do your best to try to find a situation that works," said Bowman.
But more importantly, it gives Chicago a young, gritty player they think highly of.
Ahead of their attempts to sign Caggiula in college, Bowman and the Blackhawks scouting department had done plenty of homework, making their fair share of visits to UND's campus with their eyes on other forwards at the school.
"We had talked quite a bit back when Drake was a free agent," Bowman said. "I remember spending a lot of time [at North Dakota]. We had Nick Schmaltz and Luke Johnson there at the same time, so I watched Drake play quite a bit."
Since joining Edmonton, Caggiula was yo-yoed up and down the lineup, sometimes playing on the top line with superstar Connor McDavid, but other times manning a bottom-six role. In total, he's managed 27 goals - and 49 total points - in 156 regular season NHL games.
This season, Caggiula has seven goals and four assists in 29 games. That's roughly a 20-goal pace spread out over a full season. Fans may remember, he scored twice against the Blackhawks on Nov. 1. However, a minor hand injury derailed his production and Caggiula hasn't scored a goal since Nov. 20. With injuries on the Oilers defense, he became available.
The Blackhawks were happy he did.
"I love the way he plays," said Bowman, speaking on the Notre Dame campus ahead of Tuesday's Winter Classic game against Boston. "I think he's going to complement our team. He's another young forward that brings a lot of energy and he's got that combination. He plays pretty intense. He's a smaller guy, but you wouldn't know it with the way he plays. Obviously, he was a prolific scorer in college so he's got the ability to contribute offensively but he's versatile. He plays wing, he plays center, so when we had an opportunity to make the deal I thought we had to take advantage of it."
In some ways, this trade could be compared to the one Bowman made in November in which they acquired Dylan Strome from Arizona. Strome's production was minimal over his last stretch of games with the Coyotes. But since his arrival in Chicago, Strome has scored six goals and is currently riding a three-game multi-point streak (1G, 6A).
A change of scenery has brought out the best in a young player, which is something Chicago hopes happens again with Caggiula. At the very least, he'll get the opportunity to rediscover what made him a desirable signing just a few years ago.
"For us, it made sense to kind of round out our forward group and give another option to Jeremy [Colliton]," said Bowman. "We're excited to get him here and see him on the ice soon."