PLYMOUTH, MI - Cole Caufield and Jordan Harris are giving Canadiens fans two good reasons to cheer for Team USA over the holidays.
The pair of Habs prospects are among 28 players currently assembled in Michigan vying to crack the eventual 23-man roster that will head to the Czech Republic for the 2020 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship.
Harris is in the midst of his Sophomore season at Northeastern University, where he has already matched his entire 39-game Freshman season point total in just 18 games. While he's pleased with his increased productivity, the 19-year-old defenseman is more focused on the improvements he's made that don't show up on the scoresheet.
Video: Habs prospect excels in his Sophomore season
"I think points come from the rest of your game growing," explained Harris, who was drafted in the third round, 71st overall by the Canadiens in 2018. "Just mentally, understanding the game as a whole and choosing where to pick my spots to jump up offensively while making sure I take care of things in the defensive zone, that's where my growth has come. The points come along with that."
The Business Administration major has earned his recent career highs the same way he's earned his 3.4 GPA - by being a star student.
"My goal is to just get better wherever I can," he explained. "At school, our team does a lot of video sessions, and I just want to nail those little details. Those details are huge because they become your habits and that leads to your long-term success."
In addition to eyeing long-term gains, Harris also has his sights set on a more immediate-term objective: punching his ticket to the Czech Republic.
"You grow up watching the World Juniors. My family at home watches it every year and I know it's the same for a lot of hockey families. It would be a great opportunity to play against the best competition in the world at this age," he stressed. "That would help my game. To be able to compete against those players would be huge. It would be a tremendous honor."
If he gets the call on Christmas Eve, it will mark the first time Harris will be representing the United States at an international event.
Video: Cole Caufield and Jordan Harris at World Juniors camp
Caufield, on the other hand, spent his previous two seasons donning stars and stripes as a member of the United States National Team Development Program and is feeling right at home in his old stomping grounds in Plymouth.
A sniper with a nose for the net, Caufield left the USNTDP as the organization's all-time goal scoring leader after racking up 126 goals in 123 career games played. The Canadiens' 2019 first-round pick has continued his torrid production in the collegiate ranks, and currently leads all NCAA Freshmen with 12 goals and 20 points in 18 games played.
"It's been a lot of fun. It's different playing against those older guys, but it's good for my development," admitted the 18-year-old sharpshooter, who set a new school record this year after becoming the first player in the modern era to record multi-goal games in his first two starts as a Badger. "Obviously I wanted to get off to a good start and I think I did that, but I hit some ups and downs during the season.
"It's a long season and there are a lot of games left," added Caufield. "I'm pretty happy with where I'm at now, but there's still a lot of work to do. The biggest thing is consistency, because if you're good one night and you're not the next, you're not really making a big impact. Just growing and improving each and every weekend is big for me right now."
His quick learning curve and quicker wrister have turned heads across the NCAA - including that of University of Minnesota-Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin, who will also be serving as head coach of the US squad at this year's World Juniors.
"I like the passion he plays the game with. He loves hockey. He's at the rink early every day, he's out there working on things," said Sandelin, who won a silver medal as an assistant coach at last year's event. "He's a player who loves to score goals, but I think he's also got playmaking ability. He loves to come to the rink and that's a great trait to have. Guys who really love the game and want to get better are the ones who succeed."
Sandelin would know. Drafted 40th overall by the Habs at the 1982 NHL Draft, the former blue-liner spent the first four years of his professional career in the Canadiens' organization, rubbing shoulders with a defensive roster that included the likes of Larry Robinson and Chris Chelios.
"I think anytime you can go in there and see how your game matches up against the best players under 20 [years old], it can only help build your confidence," underlined Sandelin, who suited up for Team USA at the 1984 World Juniors. "I've seen a lot of players who come out of this tournament and move on to the second half of the year and really excel because they grow and they gain a lot of confidence.
"The pace of the game is super high and the players are all really good, and it's a high level of intensity," he continued. "It's a good preparation tool for moving on to the NHL."
For Caufield and Harris, it would also be a childhood dream come true.
"Growing up watching the World Juniors as a kid, you dream of playing in that tournament," shared Caufield. "It was a tradition for my family to watch. Having a chance to be a part of that means a lot to me."
No matter how many times you don red, white, and blue, repping your country never gets old.