Cole Caufield’s first performance with the Montreal Canadiens was messy but successful. Pretty much what you could expect for a 20-year-old making his NHL debut in the middle of a playoff race.
My concern with sending Caufield on the ice was not that he wouldn’t survive the match-up or that it would affect his long-term confidence. It was simply a matter of comfort. I have said it numerous times: The Canadiens play a completely different system than the Wisconsin Badgers, the prospect’s college team. Wisconsin used a ton of stretch breakouts; they opened up the ice, while Montreal approaches the game as a tight, aggressive five-man group. They pinch on the walls, breakout from the walls, and reload quicker above the puck. A lot of Caufield’s first instincts on the ice, the habits he formed in his two years of college hockey are wrong inside the Habs system. He is a smart player, but adaptation takes time.
It is probable that the coaching staff spent a lot of time in the video room with the top prospect before the game. They probably took him aside more than once during practice, too, but there is obviously a pretty big difference between seeing it and living it. Caufield’s two games with the Laval Rockets would have started to overwrite some of the inappropriate habits, but the process got cut short by his recall.
All this to say that you couldn’t really blame Caufield too much when he turned the wrong way, double-pressured, didn’t angle properly, extended his shifts, or collided with his teammates. He will integrate the right systemic cues in due time. If it doesn’t happen fully this year, next year’s training camp will take care of it.
What is impressive is that, even through the turmoil, Caufield still managed to show what he is about. One of his hard releases from a low angle — a trademark of his in college — created a high-danger scoring chance for Tomas Tatar and his puck movements on the power play were some of the best on the team: rapid and efficient. Caufield even managed to win inside positioning on a defender in the third period. He got pinned to the wall, but not before moving the puck to a supporting teammate. This is the kind of play he will have to make routinely to find success in the NHL.
What is even more impressive than Caufield’s performance, however, is Dominique Ducharme’s utilization of his young protégé. A more conservative coach would have limited the prospect’s minutes after the first couple of shifts, putting him on the ice only against the Calgary Flames’ fourth-line for offensive zone starts. Not Ducharme. The head coach sent Caufield on the ice twice in the first few minutes of the game and continued to use him regularly after that.
He knew that Caufield could potentially cost him a goal against, knew that he probably wouldn’t prove to be a game-changer, but learning only happens if players are given the occasion to play and correct their mistakes. And so, Ducharme continued to send Caufield over the bench.
Tomas Tatar and Philip Danault aren’t the most dynamic partners for the diminutive scorer, but they provide the best blueprint of the Habs system. They are predictable, run the right routes, and stop at the right spots. The pairing makes sense, as it is easier for Caufield to play off of them than say Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who is still learning all those things himself.
This game did not guarantee Caufield a spot in the lineup through the end of the season, especially considering the difficult cap situation of the Canadiens. It showed the team that he can at least contribute in the right role and bring a dynamic element to the power play.
If anything, this debut will give Caufield, a great student of the game, footage to dissect in preparation for his next chance in the lineup.