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Catching The Torch: With WJC gold in hand, Cole Caufield has gone on a tear in the NCAA

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The forward was forced to create a lot of his team’s offence this year, and he’s getting quite good at it.

NHL: JUN 26 Canadiens Development Camp Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire 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, WHL), and collegiate (NCAA) level.

The World Junior Championship came with a gold medal for Cole Caufield, but also a lot of frustration. The goal-scorer didn’t get rewarded as much as he should have for his efforts. Of the pucks he fired on net, not many chose to go in. They instead grazed posts, deflecting barely off-target. At the conclusion of the event, the Habs prospect had the sixth-highest expected goal total in the entire tournament, according to Mitch Brown’s tracking data, but astonishingly he didn’t record a single five-on-five marker.

We can analyze why, break it down, pull out the details, and obsess over it, but honestly, while his play at the tournament wasn’t perfect, sometimes, no matter how hard you try, pucks simply don’t go in. The short duration of the tournament doesn’t give regression the time to follow its inevitable course.

The good news is that the World Juniors wasn’t the end of Caufield’s season, just a memorable interlude. Since returning to the NCAA, he has been on a tear, scoring nine points in his last six games, and taking sole possession of the top spot on Wisconsin’s leaderboard.

The main change in Caufield’s play has been an increase in pace. There is a noticeable extra drive in his attacks, in the way he passes the puck, hard and fast, often too quick for the camera to follow. With those bullet passes, he invites his teammates to play with the same intensity. In the weekend games against Penn State especially, Caufield showed the extent of the strength of his passing game, its deceptiveness, and technical variety.

Many of his feeds were laced with deception. He looked off his intended target, kept his blade closed and angled off that target, and the puck in his hip pocket to further veil his next play. His shot also served as a setup; he dropped his weight into his stick and brought the puck back before firing slightly off net, toward the stick of a teammate in a tip position.

Caufield also manipulated defenders prior to his passes. He moved them east and then west, forcing them to cross their feet to follow his movement, which allowed the winger to cut in front and drop the puck to supporting teammates coming up behind. He also bypassed opposing sticks by hooking the puck around them (using the toe of his blade to flick it toward a teammate) and by spinning on one skate to open up a new lane.

The prospect’s passing precision could improve. He finds the right teammate in the right spot, but tries to disguise his play a little too much. He doesn’t follow the movement of that teammate and ends up sending the puck into their skates instead of onto their tape. That being said, the pace of his passing game and the speed at which he connects plays is very projectable to the NHL, and almost matters more than pinpoint precision; top-six NHLers can recover slightly off-target passes and make the most out of them.

But enough about Caufield’s passing. As much as he is becoming a setup man, the most interesting aspect of his game will always be his release.

He scored twice last weekend. One goal was a bit flukey; he fired from the corner of the offensive zone, with barely any time left on the clock, and the puck slipped between the pads of Penn State’s goalie. Maybe it was the pendulum swinging back after all those just missed goals at the World Junior Championship.

The other marker, however, was another testament to Caufield’s shooting precision. On a power play, Caufield released the puck from above the top of the circles. It went to the top of the net, blocker side.

Yet Caufield’s most interesting shot was this one below. The puck came to him while he stood alone in the slot. Perhaps he overplayed his hand in the sequence. He could have fired immediately upon reception, but with his head up he saw the netminder fully set for the shot. Instead of releasing instantly, he used the threat of his teammate across the ice to try to manipulate the goalie, turning his shoulders toward that teammate and opening up his blade for a split-second to fake a pass.

Unfortunately, the goalie didn’t bite on the fake pass to compromise his positioning. It would have been an amazing goal if he had, but the clip still shows Caufield’s processing speed and his ability to not only recognize the situation, but find highly technical solutions to it in a split-second.

There’s also the way Caufield came in behind the backs of defenders, controlled his speed to arrive at the right time, put weight on his stick, and angled his feet as the puck came to him to cut down the time between the reception and the firing motion. It was yet another example of Caufield’s off-puck abilities.

Now that Dylan Holloway is back centring his line, we should see those kinds of sequences more frequently. Holloway is a puck-dominant player and an effective transition threat. He can carry the play up ice, which allows Caufield to set up away from the play and come in as a shooter.

Defensively, Caufield had a few promising shifts where he stuck to his man and helped his line exit as a group, but those efforts were erased by a couple of other shifts where he displayed many bad habits in short successions: over-aggression, followed by passivity, and some offensive cheating. The defensive aspect of the play remains a work in progress for Caufield. True change might not happen until he meets the professional game.

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 0 0 0 0
Jack Gorniak 2018 LW Big Ten Wisconsin 0 0 0 0
Sean Farrell 2020 LW USHL Chicago 2 0 1 1
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Tri-City 0 0 0 0
Jack Smith 2020 C USHL Sioux Falls 0 0 0 0
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
Blake Biondi 2020 C NCHC Minnesota-Duluth 0 0 0 0
Luke Tuch 2020 LW Hockey East Boston 0 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 31 30 22 52
Jack Gorniak 2018 LW Big Ten Wisconsin 31 6 7 13
Sean Farrell 2020 LW USHL Chicago 53 29 72 101
Sean Farrell (playoffs) 2020 LW USHL Chicago 6 1 4 5
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Muskegon/Tri-City 43 13 21 34
Jack Smith 2020 C USHL Sioux Falls 47 7 6 13
Jayden Struble 2019 LD Hockey East Northeastern 18 2 10 12
Jordan Harris 2018 LD Hockey East Northeastern 19 6 13 19
Brett Stapley 2018 C NCHC Denver 13 5 4 9
Blake Biondi 2020 C NCHC Minnesota-Duluth 25 2 3 5
Luke Tuch 2020 LW Hockey East Boston 16 6 5 11

Goalie weekly stats

Player Draft year League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Player Draft year League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Jakub Dobes 2020 USHL Omaha 0-2-0 2.10 0.923 0

Goalie Season to date

Player Draft year League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Player Draft year League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Jakub Dobes 2020 USHL Omaha 26-16-2-1 2.48 0.908 2
Jakub Dobes (playoffs) 2020 USHL Omaha 0-2-0 2.10 0.923 0