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Catching The Torch: Cole Caufield’s skills were on full display in the NCAA this season

Now the question is: Where will the Canadiens’ top prospect end up next year?

NHLI via Getty Images

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

The last weekend of games of the Wisconsin Badgers ended on a bitter note. The struggling formation played the top team in the Big Ten Conference — a playoff series win would have been an upset, but the games still left an aftertaste.

This season could have been much more for the Badgers.

They had the talent. They spent years recruiting their stars. They persuaded Alex Turcotte, K’Andre Miller and the Canadiens’ Cole Caufield from the USNTDP, arguably the best youth development program in North America, to make a stop at the college in what should be long and promising careers. They sold them on a run at an NCAA championship — the dream of many US kids who watched hockey growing up.

But they fell short. The games against Ohio State unfolded like most contests have during the season.

Especially the first one. The team’s lack of defensive engagement, the kind that drives players to take one more stride to stick lift an opponent, cost them heavily. Players also gifted the opposition some goals with untimely turnovers, and after some weird bounces, failed to show the urgency and communication to limit the scoring risk after some bad luck.

The second game on Saturday was a much closer contest. Ohio’s offence was limited to one goal, until another turnover eliminated Wisconsin early in the overtime period. At least this better overall team showing added some sweetness to the disappointing ending.

As for Caufield’s performance, it was what we have to come to expect. Sure, he didn’t score — or pick up a point for that matter — but he was the best forward, and even best player, on the ice for the majority of his shifts. He didn’t really helped contain Ohio on the defensive side, at times showing his drive-by approach to defence, but he more than made up for it by carrying his team’s attack.

Caufield’s ability to create off the rush, often by himself, has improved drastically since the start of the season.

In his first few games with the Badgers, the prospect often rushed in the wide lane only to be stripped off the puck by the agile and range defenders of the NCAA. But in the second half of the season, and especially in this last weekend, Caufield easily manipulated those opponents into giving him access to the offensive zone. He accomplished that by changing his rush patterns, using a lot more east-west movements to approach defenders at an angle and multiply his options.

His oblique attacks dragged defenders towards a direction, often to the middle, which opened up the wide lane for him to sneak past the blueline. Against Ohio, Caufield would sometimes even change lanes multiple times between bluelines and after entering the offensive zone to open up a path for himself for a shot on net, or for a drop-pass to a teammate.

Caufield could have maybe used his linemates further in some of his rush sequences to orchestrate better scoring opportunities. In the video above, there is one clip where it was clearly his best play. But often, he simply didn’t have the necessary support to do so; creating a release from the the top of the circle simply became his best option.

Caufield has turned into quite a crafty forward from someone who was mostly an off-puck threat with the USNTDP. In another clip, we see the diminutive scorer fake a toe drag mid-drive against a defender trying to angle him to the boards early. The fake sent the defender into a pivot, which Caufield abused to fly past the defender and gain the zone for a mid-range slapshot.

The forward also lined up some skill demonstrations in the offensive zone. Two sequences stood out specifically.

In the first one, Caufield chained a lot of the NHL small skaters skill that I analyzed in an article last week. He started by picking up the puck from the back wall of the offensive zone and hitting a teammate rushing to the slot with a pass, all while pressured by two defencemen.

The puck then moved to the point and Caufield beat his check to the net and freed himself as a tip option just as Miller released from the blueline. He then followed that play by immediately connecting with his other defenceman across the ice for another shot on net, and by controlling his skating to present himself as a shot option to one of his linemates, as he took possession behind the net..

In the following sequence, Caufield continued to create offence from the walls, attacking inside after picking up the puck from the red line of paint that coats them. He even won a race to the loose disc by establishing body positioning on a 6’2’’ defenceman.

Just like in his multiple rushes above, Caufield didn’t manage to score off of his savvy offensive zone plays. But those still represented good final notes to an overall successful first college season for the Habs first-rounder.

He finished the year as Wisconsin’s top pointer with 36 in the same number of games, and beat his USNTDP compatriot Turcotte by ten points, the same number of ranks that separated them at the 2019 draft. Caufield’s 19th goals had him finish tied for 11th in the nation in goal scoring. All the players ahead of him in that category had a year of experience in the league on him. And in terms of shot on goal per game, no other freshman even came close to his 3.89, a top-10 mark in the NCAA.

Now, it’s just a matter of Caufield deciding what he wants for his future.

Laval or Wisconsin?

We’ll have the answer later this week.

CHL Weekly performances

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 2 0 1 1
Samuel Houde 2018 C QMJHL Chicoutimi 3 1 2 3
Cam Hillis 2018 C OHL Guelph 3 0 2 2
Allan McShane 2018 C OHL Oshawa 2 0 1 1
Jacob LeGuerrier 2019 LD OHL Sault Ste Marie 2 0 0 0
Cole Fonstad 2018 LW WHL Everett Silvertips 3 1 1 2
Gianni Fairbrother 2019 LD WHL Everett Silvertips Injured
Kieran Ruscheinski 2019 LD BCHL Salmon Arm Silverbacks 4 0 1 1

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/USHL Weekly performances

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 0 0
Cole Caufield 2019 RW Big Ten Wisconsin 2 0 0 0
Brett Stapley 2018 C NCHC Denver 2 0 3 3
Jayden Struble 2019 LD Hockey East Northeastern Injured
Jordan Harris 2018 LD Hockey East Northeastern 2 0 0 0
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Muskegon 2 1 1 2

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