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Catching The Torch: Cole Caufield is performing better than the stats show

The forward has been a fixture in the offensive zone his returning from the World Juniors, and it’s just a matter of time until the multi-goal games return.

Montreal Canadiens Headshots

Before we delve into his return to NCAA play, let’s first start with a quick review of Cole Caufield’s World Junior Championship.

He wasn’t set up for success. For most of the tournament, the coaching staff limited his ice time and kept him off the first power-play unit. They didn’t place him with the best playmakers the team had to offer, at least for most of the games.

The systematic north-south skating didn’t fit Caufield’s style. Skating inside a corridor in the neutral zone limits his opportunities to find space and better scoring chances. He can fly, but not to the point of beating defenders wide to take the puck to the net; it’s not part of his arsenal. The same goes for recovering chip-ins when he is inevitably forced to dump the puck in the zone from the lack of rush support and east-west movement. Therefore, the Habs prospect mostly spent the tournament trying to create his own shots by going through the defence. He managed to dangle and win space in the offensive zone to take a screened shot or two, but it was not a recipe for sustained production.

What was most surprising about Caufield’s usage is that it heavily contrasted with what he was given at the World Junior Summer Showcase. There he scored in bunches and was almost universally heralded as the event’s best player. Of course, the opposition was weaker, the system was different, and Caufield moved up the lineup due to the split of Team USA into two formations. Even so, after such a dominant performance, repeated in pre-tournament games, it was unusual to see the scoring winger relegated to a bottom-six role during the two weeks of the event.

Caufield was critiqued on the maturity of his play. On a couple of occasions his shifts were too long, and he maybe wasn’t safe enough defensively. He couldn’t adapt his game to fit the demands of the coaching staff. While some coaches immediately prop their players up for success, sliding them down the lineup if they fail to meet expectations, Caufield had to earn his usage. He had to prove he deserved to steal minutes from his counterparts and could adapt his style to the team’s. The best players rise up to the occasion and blend with others, but Caufield couldn’t at the event.

The 11-day tournament isn’t the be all, end all of player evaluation, but it should also not be discounted entirely; every time a player steps on the ice, it’s new information. The event should simply be regarded as a learning experience for Caufield.

In his last year of eligibility at the World Juniors, Nick Suzuki had a quiet performance. He still showed more of his game than Caufield, but he also wasn’t paired with top linemates and didn’t get first power-play time.

He followed a disappointing outing with Team Canada with a dominant second half of the season in the OHL, and then became the best player in Junior hockey in the playoffs. A year later, he’s one of the very best rookies in the NHL.

Advertsity spurs growth. The Habs prospect will get a chance to prove what he can do in his own second half of the season, and maybe even as a tournament returnee next year. Then he should be given top minutes and teammates.

If he doesn’t return, it could only mean one thing besides injury: that he has found his niche in the NHL. It’s an alternative that would mean Caufield has found ways to round out his game over the course of the calendar year.

NCAA return

One weekend in this second half of the season Caufield is going to score five goals, and it will be said that he has arrived, that he has finally found his real goal-scoring touch and solved NCAA competition.

That wouldn’t be exactly right. It’s true that Caufield isn’t outright dominating his peers on the scoresheet right now, but there’s something weird going on in Wisconsin’s hockey program: pucks are not going in as often as they should be. There might be a forcefield on the opposing net, or something in the water that makes their best elements shoot just an inch wide, too high, or into the goalie’s pads. One way or another, the team is not having the season they expected.

Some of their lack of success could be systemic (as I talked about in this article early in the season), but it seems like the team, and especially their best scorer, is due for regression.

Here are 11 instances where Caufield could have easily registered one more point in his pair of games last weekend.

Cole Caufield wears #8 with the Wisconsin Badgers.

These clips are all quite dangerous chances. The goalie either makes a great save or the puck grazes the outside of the post. There’s also instances where teammates completely miss him when he’s wide open with his stick on the ice, and likely yelling, ‘‘here!’’

In those sequences, you will also find him transforming defence into offence. It’s not something he does as regularly as some of his teammates, but often enough to be trustworthy away from the puck. You can also see him use the threat of his shot to create for others, again showing developing playmaking chops. He doesn’t force releases that aren’t there; he moves the puck until the most dangerous play can be achieved.

Overall, it definitely was a dominant performance from Caufield this weekend, although the scoresheet only shows two points to his name. It’s still a pretty good stat line, but numbers lower than what they should be considering his constant offence-generation.

At least we were treated to the highlight clip of his goal. It’s a play he regularly attempts — you can see at least another instance of it in the video above — but this time everything came together and Caufield put the puck in the net.

This angle of the play shows all the little details that went into the marker: his patience to wait for the defender to completely obscure the vision of the goalie before releasing, and the precision of the shot that split opposing shinguards to fly to the far side of the net.

The Badgers’ opponent this weekend is Michigan State. They are tied for second in the Big Ten conference ranking, while Wisconsin has fallen to the bottom. With luck on their side and another big weekend from their top offensive creator, the Badgers still have more than a chance to shoot up the rankings.

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 55 31 40 71
Samuel Houde 2018 C QMJHL Chicoutimi 43 19 31 50
Cam Hillis 2018 C OHL Guelph 61 23 58 81
Allan McShane 2018 C OHL Oshawa 62 23 44 67
Jacob LeGuerrier 2019 LD OHL Sault Ste Marie 60 6 25 31
Cole Fonstad 2018 LW WHL Everett Silvertips 60 15 59 74
Gianni Fairbrother 2019 LD WHL Everett Silvertips 37 5 20 25
Kieran Ruscheinski 2019 LD BCHL Salmon Arm Silverbacks 36 0 6 6

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 28 2 5 7
Cole Caufield 2019 RW Big Ten Wisconsin 36 19 17 36
Brett Stapley 2018 C NCHC Denver 35 5 25 30
Jayden Struble 2019 LD Hockey East Northeastern 21 3 7 10
Jordan Harris 2018 LD Hockey East Northeastern 33 3 18 21
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Muskegon 45 17 25 42