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Catching The Torch: Cole Caufield leads the NCAA in goals

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To no one’s surprise, the Canadiens’ 2019 first-round selection hasn’t lost his scoring touch.

2019 NHL Combine Photo by Katie Friedman/NHLI via Getty Images

Each week we take an in-depth look at young members of the organization while providing an overview of Habs prospects playing at the Junior (OHL, QMJHL, WHL, BCHL, USHL) and collegiate (NCAA) level.

Good news! Cole Caufield is scoring again. After a couple of games without a marker, there could have been cause for worry about the change of pace of the prolific scorer, but he indeed hasn’t forgotten how to find the back of the net, finally writing his name on the scoresheet in Wisconsin’s second game against Clarkson University over the weekend.

In all seriousness, the Badgers weren’t always going to dominate their opposition outrageously like their game against Merrimack suggested. Eleven goals is a rare occurrence in the relatively strong league and multi-goal nights also weren’t going to repeat themselves endlessly for Caufield.

The NCAA is simply too strong a league for that to happen. College teams are much better prepared for their matchups, have more experienced players, and tighter defensive systems.

We already saw teams adapt to Wisconsin and their dangerous power play quite well. But it was the Badgers’ transition game that had been shut down in the two games Caufield was held goalless. Minnesota Duluth and Clarkson read their strategies and countered them effectively.

Without getting into too much detail, what can be said is that the Badgers rely on stretch passes a lot. They are not the only team to do so at this level. Why? Because the risk of this system is very low, while the potential reward is high.

The main goal of any breakout is to get numbers up the ice against the opposition, and the stretch pass can create those odd-man rushes and even breakaways at times. It works when the opposing forecheck is incredibly aggressive against defencemen attempting to move the puck. If the opposing team over-commits with multiple players chasing possession down low, stretching the play or sending the puck into open space behind the aggressive forecheck is a good strategy.

It doesn’t work as well when the other team reads the stretch pass attempts and backs off waiting for it, which is what happened more than a few times on breakouts in the last few contests for Wisconsin.

How does this specifically affect Caufield? Well, for a goal-scorer like the Habs prospect, standing still at the offensive blue line waiting for a pass coming from the back end, or skating at full speed down the opposite wide lane trying to catch this same pass is ... not ideal.

First, he has to settle the puck in close proximity to the defensive pressure expecting the play, and then he has to find a way to separate from this coverage to create any kind of offensive look for himself or others.

The sequence below, where he receives the puck at the blue line and then slips away from a defensive check to find a teammate entering the zone with speed, shows that he is getting better at making the most out of the tight space he gets in those positions. It bodes well for his NHL future when he will have to make such plays routinely.

But I’m sure if you asked Caufield, those are not the kind of zone entries he prefers. He wants to face the net, and he wants a runway, however small, to attempt one of his precise and deceptive releases.

How do you better create those? By breaking out as a group, beating the first line of forecheckers together then pushing back the defence to create a pocket of space for the diminutive shooter to slip into as the team breaks into the offensive zone. Or by allowing Caufield to regroup with his blue-liners and feeding him the puck after he picks up speed to allow him to create his own space.

This is how Caufield created his best chances at five-on-five in the last three games, and also how he scored his goal on Saturday. He can be a part of deadly rushes, but he needs to be set up for success with the right strategies and the right execution.

As the season goes along and chemistry between players does its work, we should see more fluid transitions out of Wisconsin, which will help boost the winger’s numbers even further.

Caufield’s best sequence didn’t come off the rush this weekend, and it wasn’t even a goal. It was a great pass to the slot for a teammate. The sequence started with a scoring chance for the prospect after the puck bounced to his stick following a zone entry. The puck then moved to Clarkson and they attempted a breakout.

Caufield foresaw his team creating a turnover when they blocked the exit attempt. He moved lower in the zone to become a pass option, got the puck and looked for a friendly stick in the slot. The passing lane to Linus Weissback was closed by a defenceman, so Caufield shifted his body, faked a net-drive to the other side (which moved the stick of the defenceman out of the passing lane) and pivoted back to slide a pass to his teammate for a one-timer in the slot.

These are some of the playmaking chops that will become more and more useful as teams try to take away Caufield’s shot as much as they can, especially on the power play. He has already started to adapt his game to account for his gravity when Wisconsin is up a man ... but that will be for a future article.

Caufield currently leads the NCAA in goals, which is incredible for a freshman. As he gets more and more comfortable in his new league, he could continue to chase goofy goal records established in defensively weaker eras of college hockey.

In the end, it’s not what matters. The process and growth related to adaption is the true value of this first year with Wisconsin for the Habs prospect, and will be the biggest indicator of how soon he will be able to join his NHL team.

CHL Weekly Stats

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Rafaël Harvey-Pinard 2019 LW QMJHL Chicoutimi 3 1 5 6
Samuel Houde 2018 C QMJHL Chicoutimi 3 2 2 4
Cam Hillis 2018 C OHL Guelph 3 2 2 4
Allan McShane 2018 C OHL Oshawa 2 2 2 4
Jacob LeGuerrier 2019 LD OHL Sault Ste Marie 3 0 1 1
Cole Fonstad 2018 LW WHL Everett Silvertips 4 2 4 6
Gianni Fairbrother 2019 LD WHL Everett Silvertips 4 0 1 1
Kieran Ruscheinski 2019 LD BCHL Salmon Arm Silverbacks 3 0 0 0

CHL Season to date

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Rafaël Harvey-Pinard 2019 LW QMJHL Chicoutimi 31 15 23 38
Samuel Houde 2018 C QMJHL Chicoutimi 31 15 27 42
Cam Hillis 2018 C OHL Guelph 26 10 29 39
Allan McShane 2018 C OHL Oshawa 27 11 19 30
Jacob LeGuerrier 2019 LD OHL Sault Ste Marie 27 2 13 15
Cole Fonstad 2018 LW WHL Everett Silvertips 25 5 26 31
Gianni Fairbrother 2019 LD WHL Everett Silvertips 25 4 16 20
Kieran Ruscheinski 2019 LD BCHL Salmon Arm Silverbacks 30 0 3 3

NCAA Weekly Stats

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Jack Gorniak 2018 LW Big Ten Wisconsin 2 0 1 1
Cole Caufield 2019 RW Big Ten Wisconsin 2 2 0 2
Brett Stapley 2018 C NCHC Denver 2 0 1 1
Jayden Struble 2019 LD Hockey East Northeastern 2 1 1 2
Jordan Harris 2018 LD Hockey East Northeastern 2 0 0 0
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Muskegon 0 0 0 0

NCAA Season to date

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Jack Gorniak 2018 LW Big Ten Wisconsin 14 1 1 2
Cole Caufield 2019 RW Big Ten Wisconsin 18 12 8 20
Brett Stapley 2018 C NCHC Denver 15 3 7 10
Jayden Struble 2019 LD Hockey East Northeastern 14 2 3 5
Jordan Harris 2018 LD Hockey East Northeastern 17 3 8 11
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Muskegon 20 5 9 14