Cole Caufield signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.
"It represents a lot, for myself personally and then for my family as well," Caufield said Monday. "It's a big step in my career. The work obviously just starts now but it's kind of surreal right now."
The forward was the No. 15 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. The 20-year-old completed his sophomore season at the University of Wisconsin and will report to Laval of the American Hockey League.
"The decision kind of went with everybody thinking what's best for me in my future right now," Caufield said about starting his professional career in the AHL. "Obviously I just can't wait to get my feet wet, it's a great league and I'm just excited to get going. I know they have a great team right now and I'm just going to be happy to be part of it."
Caufield led the NCAA with 30 goals and the Big Ten with 52 points this season. He was Big Ten Player of the Year and a top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the player voted best in NCAA Division I men's ice hockey.
"My ability in, and how I learned this year to play in all three zones a little bit better is something that I took a lot of pride in," Caufield said. "I think the compete factor has always been there but I'm just a lot more hungry right now and I just want to prove to myself how good of a player I am and what I've become this past year. I think I took a big step in my development and I'm just excited to get there and show it."
Caufield is expected to be subject to a seven-day quarantine, with 14 days of COVID-19 testing, after arriving in Canada.
The Canadiens on Friday acquired forward Eric Staal in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres for a third-round and a fifth-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft.
Montreal (14-8-9) was fourth in the seven-team Scotia North Division entering play Saturday. The top four teams will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Canadiens have not played since last Saturday; their next four games were postponed due to NHL COVID-19 protocol. They are scheduled to host the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday.
Caufield's contract is for $700,000 at the NHL level this season and $832,500 at the NHL level through 2022-23. Caufield will receive three signing bonus payments of $92,500, and the contract contains performance bonuses up to a maximum of $300,000 next season and up to a maximum of $850,000 in 2022-23.
"I'm excited," he said. "I think I drive myself with my own goals and stuff so I'm just going to push myself every day to get better and just do what I can with myself to prove to everybody that I'm good player and that I can handle the heat when that happens. Just sticking with it and doing the best I can."