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Cole Caufield’s quick adaptability is the key to his accurate release

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Shea Weber’s shot is only as good as the pass that sets it up. That isn’t the case with Caufield’s.

NHL: JUN 26 Montreal 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.

Shea Weber’s slapshot is one of the greatest weapons in the history of the NHL. Even in this latter stage of his career, it continues to win speed competitions and instill fear in goalies, shot-blocking defenders, and net-front forwards alike. But just like the giant war guns of some of the first modern battles, its loading impracticality is starting to make it obsolete. The game has evolved away from the big cannons toward mobile threats who can do more than blast away at the opposition.

Don’t get me wrong. When the right conditions are met, Shea Weber can still pierce goalies with pucks.

But due to changes in NHL structures, it becomes harder and harder to recreate those conditions. Even with some great shooting luck, I doubt Weber could score more than 10 goals on the power play over the course of a season as he did, repeatedly, between 2011 and 2017.

Penalty kills are now a lot more aggressive than they were a few years ago. They pressure Weber and his setup man — Jonathan Drouin in the Habs’ current setup — harder, and consistently disturb the connection between the two Canadiens players. They take away the passing lane or at least force suboptimal passes, which turn into suboptimal shots.

Watch J.T. Miller in the video below, specifically his high motor and quickness. When Drouin slides closer to the wall, Miller immediately collapses on him to take away space and force the puck to stay on one half of the ice. Miller’s stick constantly denies the passing lane toward the top of the opposing circle, where Weber likes to stand. The defenceman is forced to move toward the blue line instead to receive passes; too high for the shots to be dangerous.

The presence of Miller’s stick or even the potential of a quick pokecheck enters Drouin’s calculation as he tries to load up Weber and forces an adjustment. The playmaker’s passes end up arriving slightly behind the back foot of Weber instead of slightly in front of it (the best point of contact), destabilizing the defenceman’s firing motion.

Weber had a bit more space to set up a few years ago, with many teams using box setups instead of diamonds. The defenceman was still firing from higher in the zone, but the passes he got, especially the ones from deft playmaker Andrei Markov, generally arrived in the perfect spot, with the exact right weight, speed, and spin. It allowed him to unleash the full force of his slapshot with control and relative precision (no need for pinpoint accuracy with that kind of power). Montreal also ran a different power play back then, with a bit of a heavier net-front presence.

The first clip in the video below, which features all 17 of Weber’s goals in 2016-17, is a good example of what worked for him.

While Montreal’s first power-play unit in 2021 has improved since the change of coaches to the point where it is no longer a weakness of the team, there is still room to take the recipe further, to diversify the flavour and give it a spicier kick.

Every time the Weber setup fails, it is hard to not think about what Cole Caufield could do in that half-wall spot. In theory, his new playmaking touch would help the team move the puck across the box, creating more breakdowns, and his quickness and handling skills would lead to more puck recoveries and entries, and therefore more possession time. But most of all, it is his footwork that would best improve the scoring threat of the power play.

Caufield can’t match Weber in terms of release strength, but he adapts to suboptimal passes better and shoots from compromised body positioning better than the defenceman. Front foot, back foot, an inch off the ice, a beat too slow, or too fast? No problem. Send the puck in the general direction of Caufield and he will find a way to get it on net.

The small scorer can shift his weight and contort himself to adapt his release. If the pass arrives behind him, you see him ride the inside edge of his front foot to back off inside the passing lane and drop his knee to still get weight behind the shot. If the pass arrives in front, he adjusts with a few quick steps and still gets the puck in his pocket.

Some of it is anticipation, too. Caufield reads passing lanes and the body positioning of passers and gets into the right position as the puck leaves the stick of a teammate. He adapts to others just as well as others adapt to him.

Here are two stills from the video above. On the left one, the pass arrives way in front of him, and on the second one, behind him. In both images, Caufield’s feet aren’t aligned with the net, but his shoulders, hips, and bottom hand all point toward the net as he hits the puck, ensuring precision.

Of course, due to the rapid pressure of diamond NHL penalty kills, Caufield won’t be able to camp in his preferred shooting spot, the hashmark, as much in the NHL, but on the other hand, his rapid footwork will enable him to find more cross-ice passing lanes, to fire off passes coming from the other half-wall and not just the point.

With power plays, sometimes the theory doesn’t translate to practice, but many of Caufield's skills seem tailor-made for the left half-wall spot. He might be what pushes Montreal’s power play to a top-10 spot in the league in a few years.

CHL season to date

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Kaiden Guhle 2020 LD WHL Prince Albert Raiders 2 1 1 2
Gianni Faibrother 2019 LD WHL Everett Silvertips 23 1 16 17
Kieran Ruscheinski 2019 LD BCHL Salmon Arm Silverbacks 20 1 2 3

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