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Catching The Torch: Is Cole Caufield ready for the NHL?

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As Caufield’s collegiate career winds down, how large will his next step be?

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 Wisconsin Badgers’ success this season was a surprise — a welcome one. I thought that the team, weaker on paper than last season’s edition and further handicapped by the departure of the top centre for the World Junior, would struggle to line up victories. But what I didn’t account for is the supernova-like offensive explosion of some of their best forwards.

Cole Caufield and Dylan Holloway scored 34 and 32 of their points, respectively, over the course of their last 18 games. Supported by Linus Weissbach and Ty Pelton-Byce, they transported the Badgers further than expectations, up to a top-five spot in the nation’s ranking, and all the way to the summit of the Big Ten Conference.

Caufield finishes the regular season as the best scorer in the NCAA, with 46 points in 28 games, and as the favorite to win the Hobey Baker Award, given to the best player in collegiate hockey.

Before the World Juniors, I wrote an article outlining his development and what we could expect from him in the near future. After this scorching hot second half of the season, and now that Caufield is about to sign his first professional contract, the article deserves an update.

Has the projection changed?

On an imaginary development clock displaying a prospect’s readiness, the Caufield pointer that oscillated between ‘needs AHL time’ and ‘NHL-ready’ now inches closer toward that second mark; toward a fast-tracked career with the Canadiens.

He has improved offensively in diverse ways. That side of his game is now even easier to project to the NHL. But the word “inches” above was chosen carefully. As impressive and dominant as it was, the second half didn’t quiet all of the concerns surrounding his play. I would be surprised if he required years under Joël Bouchard to make his NHL jump (not that it would be a bad thing), but Caufield still needs repetitions in a few aspects of the game that college hockey couldn’t give him.

Let’s go through the prospect’s improvements and his remaining weaknesses.

Shot selection, pace, and off puck movement

When breaking down Caufield’s shooting patterns, it is not a matter of ability, but selection. The winger can do it all: fire off either foot, in-stride, with a slapshot, a wristshot, or a snapshot. He can slip pucks through, under, or above goalies from the goal line or the blue line. He can rush the net and bang in rebounds or cleanly score on breakaways. His goals come off the rush, by catch-and-releases, or via one-timers, on the power play and at five-on-five.

Few types of shots are outside of his capabilities, but not all of them have the same value in the NHL. This is something that Caufield understands. In Marc Dumont’s podcast, History in the Making, he talked at length about studying the best goal-scorers in the world to know what works and what doesn’t in the top league in the world.

Still, the game of hockey is incredibly fast-paced and requires a lot of split-second decisions. In those split-seconds, the plays selected are often those that a prospect reinforces the most over his career. The hands and the feet execute them almost automatically. It can take a while to override wrong commands.

Without it being a major concern, Caufield’s tendency to take on defenders one-on-one off the rush and to fire on net from every angle, even closed ones, posed problem in the first half of the season. Sure, Caufield can score the odd goal from those hard situations — he is the best shooter in college hockey — but those tendencies still limited his offensive potential and the projectability of his offensive game.

He cut down on the shot volume in 2021, firing two fewer shots per game at five-on-five. His shots also had better setups. According to Mitch Brown’s tracked data, a sample of 12 games over the season, more of Caufield’s shots came off passes. Just under half of his shots were assisted in the first half compared to 60% of them in the second.

Caufield started building the offence more by passing away the puck to get it back in a better situation instead of immediately firing upon entry and running to get the puck back. Not only that, but his teammates also started independently controlling the play more, carrying the puck from zone to zone and holding it in the offensive zone, which allowed the Habs prospect to get lost in coverage and attack scoring spaces.

That is how he will score the most in the NHL. When I made the previous article on Caufield’s development, however, I struggled to find clips of him doing just that. He always had the puck on his stick and, as a result, didn’t get many occasions to practise his space identification and timing.

For this article on his 2021 play, I had to cut out examples of him scoring with off-puck movements to limit the length of the video.

This return of a space- and lane-hunting game increased the quality of his scoring opportunities and, in turn, his shooting percentage at five-on-five. Before the World Juniors, 4.9% of his shot attempts went in. After? The number was 12.7%. (Luck or regression also plays a role here. The puck didn’t favour Caufield in the first months of the season.)

He also started using more diverse types of shots, firing more in-stride and slapshot one-timers — two great NHL scoring tools. We always knew that the winger could use those releases, but he seldom did in his college career, preferring to attack the net in a glide and pick his spot. Goalies, especially NHL ones, fall for releases they don’t expect. Firing inside a weight shift as he strides will help him score a few goals in the top league.

Caufield’s pace of play also improved. Few NCAA forwards played at a quicker rhythm over the past season. The scorer attacked at speed, identified his next play before he got the puck, received in motion, and passed with authority, limiting his touches to hit seams before the defence closed them.

This drive, intensity, and rhythm are very projectable to the NHL. They should help him create scoring occasions for him from day one.

Puck-protection, breakouts, and defence

At least compared to his explosive offensive skills, these three elements remain weaknesses for Caufield. Due to the way the Wisconsin Badgers play, the prospect simply didn’t have many occasions to work on them.

Without going into detail (I broke it all down in the previous article), the Badgers probably encourage Caufield to stretch on the breakout, to skate away as soon as the team regains possession to feed him breakaway passes. As a result, the winger is focused on offence even when he defends. He has been reloading above the play and helping teammates when breakdowns occur a bit more than in the first half, but overall it is not in this system, designed to maximize his offensive talent, that Caufield will learn to shut down opponents. It is not his role.

NHL wingers have to learn to handle defencemen pinching on their backs in breakout situations. Those pinches are standards of all forechecking systems. But in college, Caufield has spent more time sprinting for open ice than handling the puck under pressure on the boards. His puck-protection and small-area game haven’t developed as quickly over the past two seasons.

Looking ahead

The Badgers are playing two more games for the Big Ten Championship next week. On Monday, the winner of Penn State versus Notre Dame match will lineup versus Wisconsin. If the Badgers make it out of this contest, they will play for the Championship game the next day.

The Frozen Four will take place on April 8 and 10. The six conference champions, including the Big Ten winner, will receive automatic qualifications, while the remaining 10 teams will be selected by the Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee. As the Badgers are currently top-five in the nation on the NCAA poll, they will probably get an invitation to the tournament.

All in all, in about a month and a half, we could realistically see Caufield in bleu, blanc, et rouge, be it the colours of the Laval Rockets or the Montreal Canadiens. Considering the 15th overall pick’s development, both are reasonable alternatives at this point. If I had to make that choice, however, I would get Caufield under Joël Bouchard’s tutelage first.

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