Cole Caufield’s name is one of the first that comes up when identifying the best pure scorers of the 2018 draft class. He is the most productive goal-scorer the U.S. National Under-18 Team has seen. Mid-March, he passed Phil Kessel’s 105-goal mark to take sole possession of the program’s record, and he continues to expand on it by finding the back of the net consistently.
Oliver Walhstrom, who led the USNTDP in goals last year, relied on a powerful and precise release to score from a distance. His shot was a weapon that he could deploy anywhere from the slot to the periphery of the offensive zone, even scoring with wrist shots with his feet planted on the offensive blue line.
Similarly, Caufield fires quickly, accurately, and shows some effective tricks in his shooting, like changing the angle of his release with a dragged motion, or putting pressure on the goaltender and the defence by faking or delaying his shot, waiting for an opening in the coverage before snapping the puck in.
Unlike Wahlstrom, and many other NHL snipers when they came through the ranks, Caufield’s release is not his main standout characteristic. It is just one of his goal-scoring tools.
More than anything, what separates Caufield from his counterparts is his ability to read the game to create scoring chances for himself. Like in the way he anticipates turnovers on the backcheck, cheating slightly offensively, and catching the opposing defence off guard as he repositions behind them in a shooting spot. Or how he reads the opposing breakout to steal the puck himself and attack the net.
As a cross-ice option, he has a knack for finding just the right seam to slide into for a one-timer, which makes him especially effective on the power play, where he is used both on the half-wall and in the ‘‘bumper spot’’ right in the middle of the ice.
His ability to anticipate also serves him when he stands around the blue paint (or blue mat, as the case may be), driving to the front of the crease at just the right time to find a rebound or redirect a short pass into the net. He is also efficient at give-and-gos, able to shake his coverage by making short passes to teammates before moving into space to release.
His goal totals are definitely inflated by playing on a line packed with talent. This season, he was centred either by the projected number-one overall pick in Jack Hughes, or, in his absence, by Trevor Zegras, another deft playmaker. But very few other players in the draft, if any at all, could have complemented those centremen with timely goal-scoring as well as Caufield. He earned those goals by consistently being one step ahead of the play.
He can also drive offence himself. When he is given space, he can pull a move on a defender, fake going one way and quickly work his way to the slot where his shot is at its most dangerous.
He also works hard. He never gives up on a play, which can give him two or three scoring chances in a row. It is not rare to see him shoot, have the puck blocked, and get it back to try to bang in the rebound, or attempt a wraparound with the spilled puck to surprise the goalie.
What the diminutive forward will have to work on most is his skating form. He gets around the ice effectively, beating most of his Junior opponents in a race in the USHL, but he won’t outrace many NHL players unless he becomes a more powerful skater in the next few years. Average NHL skating is pretty good for a player with more range, but he will probably need to be a level above to translate his offensive upside to the next level due to his size.
Which brings us to the main concern for Caufield: at 5’6”, he won’t have a head on anyone in the NHL, which could impact his draft selection.
The top league in the world is evolving. The great careers of many undersized forwards and defencemen are slowly erasing the perception that prospects with bigger frames are automatically more valuable than those with smaller ones. Simply put, size isn’t as much of a limiting factor as it used to be. Even the Tampa Bay Lightning, the best formation in the NHL this season, are thriving with many impact players of smaller stature. Their success is a testament that skill and game sense are the most important factors in roster building. But does that mean that size shouldn’t be considered at all anymore? How high is too high on a draft board for a 5’6” player?
Even with players like Alex DeBrincat dominating on the ice and on the scoresheet, there is also a danger in over-correcting in the assessment of undersized skilled forwards. This is why Caufield will remain one of the players most debated in scouting meetings all the way to draft day, even if he represents a golden occasion to add a skilled goal-scorer to a prospect pool.
While he could have a great career in the NHL — and what he showed this year allows for some confidence — he is already getting around much bigger defenders to find his markers with a superior sense of timing and anticipation. But he won’t be able to win battles as easily as a player with four or five more inches on him. Goals are not given to you in the hardest league in the world, and he will have to continue finding ways to produce against towering defenceman, many of whom will even be faster than him.
All in all, the draft year of Cole Caufield could not have come at a more interesting time. He will be a good barometer to gauge where NHL teams currently stand in regard to the historically debated element of size. He certainly will not slip past the first round, but could a team inside the top 15 jump at the occasion to call his name at the podium? It would be a risky bet, but a selection that could pay off massively.