High-level athletes operate instinctively. Call it experience or a sixth sense, they know what works for them on the playing surface and what moves they have to make depending on the situation. But, they can’t always put their talent into words.
That is not the case of self-proclaimed hockey nerd, Cole Caufield.
A few weeks ago, Montreal Canadiens writer and former Eyes On The Prize managing editor Marc Dumont hosted the Habs’ 15th overall pick from 2019 on the team’s new podcast, History in the Making. Caufield showed a rare openness, giving valuable insight into his goal-scoring abilities, his training, and the game in general. Not only does he have a strong grasp of his multiple abilities, why and how they work, but he enthusiastically breaks them down, even studying the best NHL players to understand how to translate those talents to the top league.
What follows is a breakdown of a few of the elements that Caufield brought up in the podcast that I thought were particularly interesting. Of course, this all remains my interpretation of Caufield’s words.
After a few minutes of back-and-forth on the prospect’s career so far, Dumont moves on to the technical side of Caufield’s game, asking him about what is perhaps his biggest talent: finding open ice.
“Everybody teaches you when you’re a kid to go the net [...] and my dad is actually the first guy to tell me when I was pretty young. He was a goal-scorer himself and I think he learned from his playing experience,” Caufield said. “You’re not going to be able to shoot from right in front of the net. That’s where the defence was told to be. [The defender] will be right on you, and obviously, me not being the biggest guy, I can’t really outmuscle everybody down there. So, just finding ways to beat a defender in and then sneak out is probably the best way to explain it. You kind of want to get lost and find yourself in there.”
I’ve talked a lot about Caufield’s ability to sneak away from defenders in previous articles, but I wasn’t sure that the scorer planned and strategized those movements. So, it was exciting to hear him detail that facet of his game. There is a purpose behind his skating patterns. He developed them to offset his natural disadvantage — his size — and to make use of his biggest advantage: his release.
In the offensive zone, Caufield uses the width and length of the ice to circle away from the play. He hides behind the backs of opponents, forcing them to turn their heads to find him, which they often forget to do, hypnotized by the movement of the puck. When the time feels right, when the defence forgets about him and his teammates look for an outlet, Caufield strikes in the slot.
“Timing is pretty much the biggest part of it for me. You don’t want to rush to a spot. Do that, and the play is going to get taken away pretty fast. As you go up in levels, you see that timing is the most important part; kind of getting into the right area, at the right time.”
It takes a lot of restraint to not rush the blue paint ahead of the play. Players have been drilled, conditioned, to attack the area. The voices of dozens of coaches dating back to their earliest hockey days echo in their heads every time they step on the ice: ‘’Go to the net!’’
This isn’t always sound advice, however, and Caufield has learned that. If he gets there early, before the chance of a pass, a defender will drape him like a cape, tie him up, and prevent him from accessing the puck.
Surprise attacks are Caufield’s greatest weapons. Instead of aimlessly battling, of exchanging elbows and slashes with defenders, he surveys the play and draws arcs away from the action, controlling his speed to jump inside scoring range and shoot before defenders can react. Quite often, the opposition doesn’t even register his position until it’s too late.
Here are two examples of Caufield’s offensive timing, his ability to sneak away and re-enter the slot at the right time. They are both taken from the recent World Junior Championship.
“I think it is a special and important skill that not many guys have,” Caufield said: ‘’And that’s why it’s so hard to play with the best guys in the league. They are doing timing, too. They expect you to be at that spot when they need you to.”
The burden of creating scoring chances doesn’t fall only on the playmakers. Elite setup artists need followers that understand their style, their habits, and their quirks.
Caufield talks about his partnership with Jack Hughes in the podcast. The way they “fed off each other” and were “on the same level of thinking.” This goal from the Five Nations tournament in 2018 illustrates their symbiotic relationship well.
As Hughes cuts laterally along the blue line after entering the zone, Caufield slashes toward the net with rapid backward crossovers, ready to fire from a pass. Hughes delays that pass, using the threat of it instead to manipulate the defence. He slows down, brings the puck to his hip in a pass-ready position, and forces opponents to back off and cover Caufield. By continuing his circle toward the cage, the diminutive winger ends up drawing two opponents to him. It affords Hughes space to attack the near post after a rapid give-and-go with Trevor Zegras.
Caufield doesn’t stop his course in the middle of the defensive pair standing around the blue paint. He practises what he preaches, setting himself up inside the left faceoff circle, at a distance from the net-front defensive presence and in a prime one-timer position. As Hughes arrives on the other side of the cage, Caufield takes a few quick steps forward, adjusts his stick to the passing lane, and scores.
Typical of that 2018-19 season, the only time Caufield touched the puck on that play is to put it in the net, but all through the sequence, his choice of movement and positioning created opportunities for his centre. They gave Hughes more space, additional tools to beat the defence, and another assist on his stat line.
Dumont pushes the discussion further. He asks Caufield about his release, his pre-shot motion, and what makes it so deceptive and powerful.
“There are a lot of different ways to score goals,” Caufield said. ‘‘You can’t just be one-dimensional. When it looks like I’m not trying, that’s because I’m not trying to let the goalie see it or I’m not trying to let the defenceman react as quickly. Now at this level, you’re trying to read the defenceman’s stick rather than trying to pick a corner with the goalie. Because, if the goalie can’t see it, the percentages go way up.”
“A lot of the stuff I worked on this summer was being able to shoot off both legs and making the defender do what you want so you can know what foot you’re going to shoot, know when you’re going to shoot, and how you’re going to shoot through him. When you make your move, you know what the defenceman is going to do based on his hand position. Showing him one thing, and then if he does this one move, you know what you’re going to do next.”
In the NHL, goalies don’t get beat by clean shots. Players have to trick them to get the puck past their giant, athletic frame: angle changes, fakes, screens, etc. Caufield is thinking ahead. He is “not just shooting to shoot,” but focusing his training on the elements that will have him score at the next level. In the NCAA, he seems to actively seek one-on-one confrontation with defenders to learn to manipulate them out of shooting lanes and/or conceal his releases.
Until the podcast, I never realized that Caufield looked at the top hand of defenders when pulling his moves to know how and when to ultimately fire. Rewatching some of the clips, however, you can see him focus his attention there.
Take this sequence as an example. The winger is on his strong side on the half-wall on the power play. He gets five consecutive shooting opportunities.
The formula remains the same for each shooting chance. Caufield approaches the slot. He lines up the puck, the defender, and the net, preparing a screened release. When only a few feet separating him from the opponent, his blade moves away from his body, extended to fake a first release.
This is where Caufield starts changing his play depending on the reaction of the defender. If that defender goes into a blocking position — top hand in a closed position along his body — Caufield steps around, takes space in the slot, and fires. If the opponent opens up that top hand, darts his stick in for a pokecheck, and stays on both feet, Caufield shifts the puck laterally and fires through the opponent.
Caufield attempts the same reads and manipulation as he attacks off the rush. On most of his one-on-ones, he looks to move the puck around the stick of defenders to shoot through them.
He goes on to talk about watching NHLers to learn the tricks of the goal-scoring trade: “I love watching Auston Matthews. He knows what he’s going to do before he’s even shooting.”
Dumont leads the conversation toward Matthews’s drag-shot. ‘‘It’s a really insane move, to be honest with you,’’ Caufield said “He pulls it a lot farther than I can because his reach is a lot longer. Watching him and how he does it, it’s all in his feet. Him being a lefty. It’s left foot to right foot when he pulls it in. He’s shooting off his right leg when he pulls it in. When you pull it in like that, you don’t even need to worry about shooting it hard. It’s so hard to pick up a puck when you’re changing the angle that much. And you can just shoot it back against [the goalie’s motion] when you pull it in.”
Matthews is obviously not the most popular figure on this platform, but he has arguably the best wristshot in the world, and the way Caufield explains the shot mechanics of the Leafs centre is worth expanding upon. At times, the smaller scorer employs some of the same techniques.
The drag-shot subverts the expectations of goaltenders. They prepare their position and cover their angles based on the position of the disc at the start of the shot motion, but, as the puck is moved a couple of feet before it is fired, it bypasses the coverage.
“It’s all in the feet.”
What enables Matthews to change the angle of his release is his footwork. He goes from a glide stance, skates wide apart, to a stride-like position by rolling on the outside edge of his right skate. He bends his right knee and brings his torso fully over it by sliding his left leg back.
That right outside edge is the difference between a Matthews drag-shot and the drag-shot of many other talented shooters.
Take a look at this clip of Fabian Lysell, a projected high first-rounder in the 2021 NHL Draft. He extends the puck away from his body, brings it back in line with his inside skate, kicks his inside leg back, and leans on his stick like Matthews. But if you look at his outside skate — the left one in his case as he shoots right — it glides on the inside edge, not the outside one.
That difference, however small, shortens the length of the drag motion and limits the flexion of both the muscles involved in the shot and the stick. Lysell doesn’t achieve a stride-form; his shot is not as deceptive or powerful.
Caufield uses the drag-shot from time to time, but it isn’t his weapon of choice — he isn’t able to produce the same results with it. Due to his smaller stature, the change in shooting angle isn’t as significant; the pulled-in puck travels a much shorter distance on his blade than on a 6’3” Matthews’s.
That being said, when Caufield does try the drag-shot, he hits most of the right notes. He gets on the outside edge of his left skate, bends the knee of that leg, pulls the puck all the way to his inside skate, and kicks that leg back. If he were to lean even more over his outside skate as he fires, his shot would mirror Matthews’s; a testament to the large amount of time Caufield spends practising his release.
The podcast gave great insight into Caufield’s development and his approach to skill development. There are plenty more interesting technical tidbits, but what it highlighted more than anything else is the prospect’s pure passion for the game. You should give it a full listen if you haven’t already to get into the mind of the Canadiens’ top prospect.