The demand, and therefore the value, of rookie cards is often driven by a player’s performance. That holds true for any sport.
Sometimes, that rookie year can be a roller coaster ride. Exhibit A is Cole Caufield of the Montreal Canadiens.
Heading into the 2021-22 NHL season, Caufield was expected to drive sales of Upper Deck Series 1 Hockey. Alexis Lafreniere, the first overall draft pick of the New York Rangers in 2020, drove hockey card sales throughout the 2020-21 season. Lafreniere had a good, but not spectacular, rookie season. His Upper Deck Hockey Young Guns rookie card, ungraded, settled in the market as a $300 card.
Caufield, however, stole the spotlight late in the season when he turned pro after an incredible sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin. Caufield had perhaps the best season of any offensive player in Badgers history, scoring 30 goals in 31 games. He added 22 assists to finish with 52 points. He played a pair of games with the Laval Rocket of the American Hockey League, scoring three goals. His NHL debut came next, and he did not disappoint. He netted four goals in 10 games for the Canadiens, and then scored another four in the playoffs.
While Lafreniere was a highly-touted first overall draft pick, Caufield was not. Though his offensive upside was intriguing, scouts and GMs were hesitant to role the dice on the 5’7”, 165-pound right winger. In the 2019 draft, he dropped down to 15th despite scoring 72 goals in 64 games with the U.S. National Under-18 Development Team. The Mosinee, Wisconsin native headed to college to play for the Badgers for two years. His combined 49 goals in 69 games as a Freshman and Sophomore set up the possibility for him to become the most prolific goal scorer in college hockey history, had he stayed at Wisconsin.
When Upper Deck posted the image of the upcoming 2021-22 Caufield Young Guns rookie card in the offseason, interest in the card skyrocketed. Widespread speculation in the hobby among pundits, podcast hosts, analysts and collectors was that the Caufield Young Guns rookie card would be worth $400 ungraded out of the gate.
But then, things cooled down for a number of reasons.
Upper Deck Series 1 Hockey was delayed by a couple of months. During that time, Caufield experienced the first slump of his hockey career at any level. The product delay punished both the momentum and excitement for the 2021-22 Young Guns rookie cards. Meanwhile, after 30 games of what had expected to be a Calder Trophy season in Montreal, Caufield had just one goal and seven assists. The hype for Caufield’s rookie card, along with the pre-sales of the card, took a major hit.
With Caufield slumping and the Canadiens slumping, a new head coach was brought in who is being credited for turning Caufield’s game around. Martin St. Louis, who was an undrafted, diminutive player who became a Stanley Cup champion, a two-time Art Ross Trophy winner and a Hart Trophy winner, was hired to guide his hometown team.
Caufield had drawn comparisons to both St. Louis and to Marcel Dionne when he made it to the NHL. His game suddenly turned around. In 18 games under St. Louis, Caufield has 12 goals and 10 assists for 22 points. His 30 points place him eighth in rookie scoring in the NHL. Michael Bunting, Lucas Raymond and Trevor Zegras sit one-two-three with 48, 47 and 46 points respectively. However, if Caufield keeps up his hot pace, he will certainly join the conversation for the Calder Trophy.
The hobby has not caught up to Caufield’s surge. His Young Guns card #201 on eBay registered sales ranging in the $80 to $120 range. There was also a French language version of the Young Guns (Jeunes Loups) card sold for $250. For the record, Jeunes Loups translates to “Young Wolves.”
Lafreniere, meanwhile, has 13 goals and eight assists for 21 points in 61 games with the Rangers this year. His 21 points matches his rookie season total. The Rangers are playoff bound this season, but Lafreniere ranks just eighth on team scoring. Earlier this month, a 2020-21 Upper Deck PSA 10 Lafreniere Young Guns card sold for $399. A year ago, a PSA 10 version of that card routinely sold for $900.
Caufield and Lafreniere are still young with a lot of upside. But right now, if you are looking for a rookie with upside in the NHL, Caufield holds the edge both on the ice and in the hobby.