PHOENIX – Drake Caggiula was in limbo.
The 26-year-old forward entered unrestricted free agency with the hope of continuing his NHL career amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While supporting his 6-week old son, Caggiula waited two months for a call.
“You’re just kind of wondering ‘What’s the next plan for me?'” Caggiula said.
He reached out to close friends for help. One voice caught his attention: his former University of North Dakota teammate, Arizona Coyotes forward Nick Schmaltz.
“I had some really good conversations with Schmaltz,” Caggiula said. “He thought I would be a great fit in the organization with the way I play.”
Lo and behold, the Coyotes offered him a new home in the Valley on Dec. 21, lifting the weight of uncertainty from his shoulders. And knowing he would be reunited with his former college roommate only lightened the burden even more.
Schmaltz, 25, and Caggiula have found a groove together as part of the Coyotes’ core forward group this season, reminiscent of their championship-winning days with University of North Dakota’s Division I men’s hockey program.
“It’s exciting,” Caggiula said. “We talked about it ever since college – if we could ever play together in the pros, that would be something we could try to make happen.”
Blast from the past
Caggiula and Schmaltz carried the torch for North Dakota’s Fighting Hawks during the team’s 2016 Frozen Four championship run, but they didn’t click right away.
It took UND coach Brad Berry a couple months before he partnered Schmaltz and Caggiula with Brock Boeser, now a forward with the Vancouver Canucks.
The line picked up steam, and in a hurry.
Together, the trio transformed into an iconic college hockey threat as the “CBS Line” – a nickname derived from the first letters of each of their last names. The CBS Line accounted for 63 of North Dakota’s 162 goals that season.
“I’d say that’s one of the most prolific lines that we’ve had,” said Berry, who is now in his sixth season with the Fighting Hawks. “They came together in late fall and built some chemistry and once they started having some success, our guys within the program nicknamed them that line.”
It became routine to see remarkable plays from the CBS Line. But on Nov. 13, 2015, the team’s best players did something that was stunning even for that group to pull off: a “tic-tac-toe” goal that went viral, according to Berry.
“It was incredible,” said Schmaltz, who completed the magical sequence against Miami University. “Playing with Drake and Brock on a line, I think, was super fun. We were able to score a bunch of goals. We really played well together and were really tight together off the ice.”
Caggiula was a senior, Boeser just a freshman and Schmaltz a sophomore, yet they bonded with each bringing different skill sets that complemented the others.
Caggiula was the engine, eager on the forecheck and aggressively grinding for pucks low in the offensive zone to set up his skilled partners.
Boeser was the sniper, picking corners with the flick of a wrist and lighting up the red lamp to the tune of a team-leading 27 goals, which was second among NCAA freshman that season behind Michigan’s Kyle Connor.
Schmaltz’s eagle-eye vision and deceptive stickhandling made him an elite playmaker. He finished first among the Fighting Hawks and fifth in the NCAA with a career-high 35 assists.
Together, the trio combined for a plus-135 rating. Their goal-scoring abilities passed through to the locker room, where their leadership qualities led to some intense and critical conversations – sometimes in loud voices.
“They pushed each other,” Berry said. “They absolutely were teammates that loved each other, but they pushed each other in a good way. When things weren’t going right at practice and at games, they challenged each other to be their best.”
The CBS line led the Fighting Hawks into the Frozen Frozen at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida as regular-season champions of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
Prior to 2-16, UND had seemed to be cursed in the Frozen Four. The program had failed to advance to the championship game in six straight Frozen Four appearances.
Tied 2-2 after 40 minutes against the University of Denver Pioneers, the Fighting Hawks needed a spark to reverse their fate ahead of the third period and avoid another Frozen Four disappointment.
Then those loud voices spoke up. Caggiula was first, then Schmaltz followed by Boeser.
“All of the line was standing in part of the room together,” Berry said. “I could hear Caggiula talking to his teammates and saying, ‘Hey, we got to be better. We got to make one more play. We got to be the difference here tonight.”
And the Fighting Hawks did.
With one minute remaining in regulation, Berry sent out the CBS Line for an incoming offensive zone draw.
Following the clean face-off win by Boeser, Caggiula flung the puck toward the net. The Pioneers’ defense blocked the initial attempt, but Schmaltz made no mistake on the rebound, burying it to send UND to the final against top-ranked Quinnipiac.
The Fighting Hawks ended their 16-year drought, trouncing the Bobcats 5-1 to capture North Dakota’s eighth national championship and the school’s first since 2000.
Caggiula was named the Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player with a pair of goals in the title game. And the Frozen Four victory was a surreal moment, according to Caggiula and Schmaltz.
“That’s the best feeling I’ve ever had playing hockey,” Caggiula said. “I worked four years for this, and it finally happened in my last ever game. I couldn’t ask for a better way to leave.”
“Winning the NCAA Championship was the highlight of the year,” Schmaltz added. “No doubt.”
As the saying goes, the third time’s the charm.
After two injury-plagued stops with the Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks, Caggiula was relieved to hit the reset button with a familiar face on his side.
“I’m feeling more confident in myself and my abilities,” Caggiula said after his first few practices of the shortened training camp in January. “The coaching staff has given me some freedom to play my style of hockey within the team game.”
Getting into shape after an extended off-season was the main priority for Caggiula and Schmaltz. However, they’ve taken time to sit down and spend time away from the game to reminisce.
“We’ve been catching up on and off the ice,” Caggiula said. “We hadn’t seen each other in a long time. To see how we’ve both grown up and what’s going on in our personal life has been great.”
With a fast-approaching season opener, Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet put Caggiula and Schmaltz together with Conor Garland as the team’s top line. He immediately saw chemistry forming.
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“They put a lot of pressure on the puck,” Tocchet said. “They’ve stripped the puck a lot and they’ve had a lot of offensive zone time. That line, for almost every game, they’ve been consistently getting a lot of chances or maintaining offensive zone time.”
Even the coach of their alma mater could sense the instant connection between the C and S of the old CBS Line.
“As soon as (Caggiula) signed there, I always wondered if they would play together,” Berry said. “After watching a few games, it looks like their chemistry is back. They’re finding each other and scoring goals together. That’s really neat to see.”
Schmaltz and Caggiula are in position to set personal milestones during the 56-game campaign which has a unique, college-hockey-style format.
Schmaltz has tallied eight assists and 14 points in 21 games, translating to a career-best .67 points-per-game pace. Aside from his first goal as a Coyote on Friday night against Colorado, Caggiula has collected six primary assists in 16 games, and appears to be bound to break his single-season record of 11 assists set during his rookie year.
Although the Coyotes have inserted Schmaltz in the middle of the recently-hot Short Leash Line with Garland and Clayton Keller, he and Caggiula have continued to take shifts together in critical late-game scenarios, including in the consecutive comeback wins against the Anaheim Ducks and in the nine-game homestand finale against the Colorado Avalanche.
From lineups to traveling wrinkles, nothing has been set in stone during this unusual season – except one thing.
Caggiula and Schmaltz are together again, and are looking to repeat their magic in the playoffs.
“We have the opportunity to do that now,” Caggiula said. “We’re very excited about it.”