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How diminutive scorers found NHL success, and what Cole Caufield needs to do to follow them

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The NHL is home to several small offensive stars, each of whom have developed certain abilities to overcome their stature. There are many lessons to be applied to Caufield’s development.

NHL: JUN 26 Montreal Canadiens Development Camp Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the modern NHL, no longer do range, strength, and grittiness dictate the flow of the play. They remain important, arguably increasingly so as the season goes on, but now more than ever organizations try to build an ensemble of skill, craftiness, and speed in which diminutive skaters can not only survive, but thrive.

With the current image of the league, Cole Caufield has a real chance of becoming an integral part of the core of the Montreal Canadiens, following the footsteps of other smaller Junior or collegiate forwards who earned their place at the top of an NHL lineup.

Like those other players, it doesn’t mean that it will happen overnight. Size remains a natural advantage in most on-ice situations; and the adaptation to the professional game can take some time for players 5’9” and under.

Johnny Gaudreau spent three years in college after his draft season. Current point-per-game player Kailer Yamamoto needed multiple unsuccessful NHL stints and more than a year of AHL development. Even Brendan Gallagher and Brad Marchand excelled at all levels of hockey before joining the big leagues, and only reached their peak effectiveness in the latter half of their 20s.

Alex DeBrincat looks to be an exception. He made the Chicago Blackhawks roster in his draft-plus-two season and immediately put up numbers. This season, the scorer has struggled at times as he learns to drive a line away from Patrick Kane — a player known for his ability to adapt his game to the strengths of his linemates.

A few days ago, in an in-depth interview with Mathias Brunet, Marc Bergevin mentioned that the organization preferred the patient approach with Caufield. The team will recommend that the top prospect stays another year in college, or spends time in Laval to develop specific abilities that will serve him for years to come in the top league in the world.

In acquiring those skills, Caufield can draw inspiration from many of the players previously mentioned. They have outlined a development path to the NHL and represent great models of what’s needed to succeed.

While referencing his comparables, let’s take a look at certain facets of Caufield’s game, his strengths and weaknesses to better understand where the prospect currently stands in his progress toward a pro career.

Finding quiet ice

NHL scorers like Marchand and DeBrincat have integrated deceptive off-puck movements in their game. They complement their talented linemates by consistently becoming dangerous shooting options. They take skating routes that move them behind defenders’ backs. They jump in and out of the slot at the right time to capitalize on passes, and create room for themselves with tricks, like putting on the brakes as they enter the offensive zone, or letting the momentum of opponents carry them out of checking range to create just enough space for a release.

Similarly, Caufield has a knack for getting lost in the coverage, finding pockets of space to receive and fire. This skill has already led to more than a few goals off the rush in his first year of college play. As his team attacked the offensive blue line, the forward looked to enter the offensive zone a couple of steps behind his teammates, this way separating himself from the line of defence to get screened shots from the top of the circles.

That being said, off the cycle in five-on-five offensive zone situations, Caufield couldn’t find shots as well this season as he did in the USHL in years past. He showed less-effective off-puck movements and stayed more on the periphery, and that took away scoring chances.

I don’t think this specific change in playstyle is really indicative of Caufield losing his touch. It’s attributable in no small part to the Wisconsin Badgers not affording him the right opportunities to use his off-puck strategies.

Scoring from established in-zone possessions depends on linemates and system. If teammates can’t shake the opposition, or can’t get their heads up to look for options under pressure, they won’t set up shooters in dangerous areas. Overall, the Badgers haven’t been the most talented team at creating chances from offensive-zone possessions, and as a result, Caufield has been forced to create his own shots by challenging defenders one-on-one.

The forward’s ability to exploit seams in the coverage will likely come back when he finds the right chemistry with capable and experienced playmakers. It should be an integral part of his goal-scoring toolkit in the professional game; the one he leans on the most to continue scoring.

Net-front play

At the NHL level, most scorers rack up high totals with a recurring ability to find goals a few feet from the cage. While it’s a safe bet that Caufield will return to his deceptive off-puck movements with the necessary support in the next few season, developing this much-needed net-front play might be a bit more arduous for him.

Caufield is not Brendan Gallagher. Unless he overhauls his style of game completely, he likely won’t become another gritty, hard-nosed scorer for the Habs. Gallagher stands almost alone with this style of play at his size in the NHL. However, even if those two players differ in identities, it doesn’t mean Caufield won’t be able to score from the same locations as Gallagher in different ways.

Just like in shooting from quiet areas, moving on net for scoring chances requires great timing, especially so for players on the smaller-side. To get their sticks on the puck, they need to avoid being boxed out. The longer they stay around the blue paint, the higher the chance that a defender will counter their attempts at a tip or a rebound.

Moving into a net-front position at the same time the puck gets there is how Caufield will find goals at the doorstep. With this tactic, defenders can’t react in time to counter the play.

Here are a few examples of forwards timing themselves with point shots to attack the crease. They manage to keep their sticks free to act on the play. If they can’t win inside positioning against a defender, they step out of the net-front scrum and move around defenders, wide of the net, to open themselves as pass or tip options.

In his games last weekend, Caufield set up a goal for Alex Turcotte, and come close to scoring himself, by rushing the net. Those plays were signs of progress, but they remain uncommon.

It will take more time for him to develop the net-front aspect of his game. Right now, it could limit his scoring if he were to make an immediate transition to professional hockey.

Small-area game

This season, Caufield has shown that his puck-handling ability is not to be underestimated. Again, he has had to create his own shots more often than not by dangling defenders. That being said, while he could slip by opponents facing him one-on-one, regularly escaping pressure along the walls with his back turned to the play proved more challenging.

He could develop his strength and his puck-protection technique to the point where he will be able to hold off much larger defenders. The NHL has a couple of diminutive forwards who can protect the puck very effectively in tight quarters, the best one probably being Mats Zuccarello. Just like in the net-front game, Caufield hasn’t shown a penchant for leaning against defenders and fighting his way along the wall. It’s likely he doesn’t follow this hardy development path.

The prospect creates offence through motion and using the open ice, and that’s also how he could best hold his own in tight quarters in the future, copying the likes of DeBrincat and Gaudreau. Those players support the play wide, using the length of the ice to their advantage when giving passing options to teammate. By distancing themselves a bit more from scrums, they trade off a more immediate offensive position for a better escape route with the puck when it reaches them.

They also receive in motion, activating their feet toward open ice to further separate from defenders and avoid being pinned to the wall. They move the puck quickly toward teammates before they’re surrounded by a defensive collapse.

On top of those strategies, Gaudreau employs clever tricks to stay out of the range of the defence. With the puck, he uses skate-fakes and dances back and forth at the edge of the coverage zone of two defenders, often behind the net or near the top of the circles. This little routine makes opponents hesitant to pressure him, afraid they might overcommit and double-cover.

Caufield has shown some of those elements this season, but not consistently. At times, he sealed himself inside wall scrums with no chance of getting out, turned back into pressure with the puck instead of using the open ice, and rushed his decisions with defenders on his back.

Many rookies force plays when they first join a more challenging league until they settle in and get a feel for the time and space available. Awareness in tight spaces takes time to develop. Specifically in the professional game, it’s a crucial skill in breakouts from the wing position in the defensive zone. Defencemen are often forced to rim pucks up the wall when collapsed on by the forecheck, so it becomes the job of the wingers to make the best of the wall-pass with the opposition pinching hard on their backs.

Junior or college players are not often exposed to those situations, and the Wisconsin Badgers stretch-pass system certainly didn’t give Caufield the most repetitions of these situations. He was often fleeing the zone to catch lobbed pucks instead of digging them from the boards in the defensive zone like he will have to do repeatedly in the pro game.

Once again, this facet of the game will probably require quite a large adaptation from the prospect.

Defensive play

Bergevin pointed to Caufield’s defensive game when asked what held him back from the NHL right now. The forward is clearly an enthusiastic offensive player. He craves goals, and more than anything wants to make the difference for his team. His fiery drive led him to break records for the U.S Development Team last year, but as he transitions through the levels of hockey, it will need to be harnessed and unleashed at the right times.

The Badgers’ breakout system asks players to anticipate turnovers and breakouts to beat opposing defencemen to the neutral zone. But this season, even considering how the team strategy affects defence, Caufield still has taken steps toward the offence a bit too early in defensive situations — not regularly, but enough to show that in the defensive zone his mind isn’t always focused on the priorities such as getting in the shooting lanes of opposing defencemen, checking over his shoulder for back-door plays, and preventing puck-carrying forwards from cutting inside the circles.

Caufield can be puck-absorbed in defensive situations and late on coverage switches with his teammates. He sometimes postures too aggressively, and other times could better move ahead of puck battles to give his team more of a chance to come out with possession.

The Badgers as a whole suffered from repeated defensive breakdowns, but Caufield could certainly have better sealed the cracks at times this season.

Conclusion

Caufield could likely boost the Canadiens’ power play right now with his shot and ability to use seams in the coverage, but the rest of his game would likely lag behind the rest of his teammates — in some cases, considerably so. His small-area, net-front, and defensive play all need work before he could hope to achieve a positive scoring-chance differential in the top league in the world.

As for his best development path, both the NCAA and the AHL are worthy options. The Badgers weren’t the winning, structured team that Montreal could have hoped for to develop their top prospect this season, but the college opposition still provided a challenge for him. By spending another year in Wisconsin, he would keep his confidence high by continuing to rack up points while rounding out his game. On the other hand, the Laval Rocket would expose the scorer to the demands of professional hockey immediately. He would get a clear picture of what he has to adjust to translate his game to fit the Canadiens’ style.

No matter the path taken, patience is the best approach with Caufield. He has more than proven in his first year of college that he was worthy of the 15th overall selection last June, but now it’s all about moulding him into a functional NHL weapon. Based on what we’ve seen from similar players who came before him, that development is expected to take time.