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Catching The Torch: Cole Caufield’s season gets under way

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The Canadiens have a few point-per-game players to open the U.S. hockey schedule.

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

And we’re back!

It took a while for the North American Montreal Canadiens prospects to step on the ice, but the past weekend finally gave us regular-season games to dissect.

For the newcomers to this Catching The Torch series, every week, we break down the game of the organization’s young players. We look at their talents, their weaknesses, and follow their development throughout the season. If the hockey season can stay on the right track for in the coming months, all the prospects playing in North America should have at least one feature article.

Without further ado, let’s get into it.

Last week, Cole Caufield, Jack Gorniak, and the Wisconsin Badgers faced off against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a team that Jake Evans captained just a couple of years ago. Wisconsin won both games.

The pair of wins will not only help the Badgers to forget their disappointing outing of 2019-20, but also the talent they lost in the off-season. Last year, they were considered by many pundits as a stacked team, but it quickly became clear that the team lacked cohesion. It fell in the standings and never really recovered.

Following disappointing seasons, Alex Turcotte signed with the Los Angeles Kings and K’Andre Miller with the New York Rangers. Those two players would have been counted upon to act as the number-one center of the team and the number-one defenceman, respectively.

Against Notre Dame, the holes left by departing players were apparent, and so were the weaknesses that plagued the team the year prior: the defensive and transition game. Yet, with inspired performances from a few of its players, Wisconsin managed to escape with the wins.

It would be a stretch, however, to say that Caufield was one of those difference-makers. As a result of the transition woes for the Badgers, the puck only rarely made its way to his stick off the rush. Maybe it was because he seldom had the disc, but he held on to it too long in the offensive zone, killing a few scoring chances.

That being said, he came out of the weekend with two assists, including a primary one earned by firing at the net from the left circle on the power play. The puck bounced to a teammate who then put it in.

The bigger story was the hit that Caufield took in the second game. After he rushed in the offensive zone and fired a shot, Notre Dame player Colin Theisen cut through the zone and hammered him. Fortunately, the Habs prospect came back the following shift.

Jack Gorniak also picked up two assists against the Irish. He had his best weekend performance since joining the Badgers, blocking multiple shots and driving the net.

Perhaps his best chance came off a breakaway. He sprinted toward an opposing defenceman, dislodged the puck from him, and attacked the net. The goalie extended his right pad and managed to stop the shot.

With his performances, Gorniak made a case to at least be a regular in the lineup going forward. If he continues to improve his play, he might even move up to the top nine of the team, which in turn would give him more minutes and occasions to showcase his offensive skills.

Next weekend, the Wisconsin Badgers face the strong Michigan Wolverines. The matchup will be a real test for the Badgers.

Sean Farrell vs. Rhett Pitlick

Daniil Gushchin and Rhett Pitlick were a fearsome duo last season for the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks. They racked up points and dominated most teams they faced, but the coaching staff broke them up to start the 2020-21 season in hopes of spreading talent over multiple lines.

The breakup hasn’t slowed Gushchin; he picked up seven points in three games to start the season. But in that same timeframe, Pitlick only recorded a single assist. Even on Saturday, in an explosive matchup against the Chicago Steel that ended up 10-8, Pitlick was left off the scoresheet entirely. It wasn’t a factor of bad luck; the forward didn’t create many chances.

As a 19-year-old, NHL-drafted player in the USHL, there is no question that Pilick should be producing at a high volume. Hopefully this is an early-season funk for him, similar to the one he had last season.

On the other side of the ice, Sean Farrell had himself a game for the Steel. Of course, his supporting cast was much better — his centre, Mackie Samoskevich, will be drafted high in the first round — but the Habs winger prospect created his share of offence, picking up one assist and scoring twice from similar spots on the power play.

He only scored 15 goals in 44 games last season. He isn’t known for his shot, but his actual release technique was always a strength. To start the 2020-21 campaign, it looks like he has decided to use that weapon more.

The prospect first beat the Muskegon goalie with a one-timer. As the puck came to him, he dropped his left knee to lower his posture and turned his other foot toward the goal to aim his release. He then twisted his upper body while keeping his left arm extended. The lowered posture and the lock arm allowed him to create a lever-action and forcefully activate the flex of his stick as it hit the ice.

Farrell’s skating momentum carried him backward, so he couldn’t hit the puck with as much power, but his sound technique still allowed him to fire the puck cleanly past the goalie.

Those fade-away releases were commonly used by Brendan Brisson, the Vegas Golden Knights’ 30th overall selection at the 2020 NHL Draft, and Farrell’s linemate last season. We might see them more regularly out of the Habs prospect now that he has to take a bigger shooting role to compensate for the absence of last year’s teammate.

Farrell’s second goal showed his other qualities as a marksmen: his precision and deception. He received a cross-ice pass, but didn’t immediately fire. As he approached the net, he lined up his shoulders toward the slot. Opponents, thinking he was about to pass, moved their sticks to cut passing lanes to other players in the area, which opened up more space for Farrell to attack the net and beat the goalie above the shoulder.

This is an example of Farrell leveraging his ability as a passer, a talent his opponents have come to know, to open up scoring chances for himself. This kind of deceptive act will serve him very well next year in the NCAA.

NCAA/USHL weekly stats

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Cole Caufield 2019 RW Big Ten Wisconsin 2 0 2 2
Jack Gorniak 2018 LW Big Ten Wisconsin 2 0 2 2
Jayden Struble 2019 LD Hockey East Northeastern 0 0 0 0
Jordan Harris 2018 LD Hockey East Northeastern 0 0 0 0
Brett Stapley 2018 C NCHC Denver 0 0 0 0
Sean Farrell 2020 LW USHL Chicago 1 2 1 3
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Muskegon 1 0 0 0

NCAA/USHL season to date

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Cole Caufield 2019 RW Big Ten Wisconsin 2 0 2 2
Jack Gorniak 2018 LW Big Ten Wisconsin 2 0 2 2
Jayden Struble 2019 LD Hockey East Northeastern 0 0 0 0
Jordan Harris 2018 LD Hockey East Northeastern 0 0 0 0
Brett Stapley 2018 C NCHC Denver 0 0 0 0
Sean Farrell 2020 LW USHL Chicago 1 2 1 3
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Muskegon 3 0 1 1