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Cole Caufield’s development is unlikely to be completed in tenure at Wisconsin

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The prospect’s game is growing in the NCAA, but he’s not in the ideal situation to work on his weaknesses.

NHL: JUN 26 Canadiens Development Camp Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At the start of the 2018-19 season, the Montreal Canadiens sent Nick Suzuki back to Junior with a laundry list of weaknesses to improve, the main one being the overall pace of his game. The Canadiens wanted him to dominate the OHL, but in an NHL-translatable way. The prospect couldn’t fall back into his old tropes: downshifting to create space and survey his options before overwhelming defenders with his skill. From then on, his moves had to be made at top speed.

A switch of OHL organizations, from the Owen Sound Attack to the Guelph Storm, provided him the right environment to evolve. Defences played him tighter than ever before in the playoffs, but the centreman, placed in a prime role and surrounded by players who enabled his style of play, managed to reach new levels of excellence.

At the end of the 2019-20 season, the Habs used the same blueprint on Cole Caufield. They weren’t fully satisfied with the state of his game, pointing to his defense as an area of weakness. And so, they recommended another year in college.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that the extra season will be the stepping stone for Caufield that it was for Suzuki.

From watching the early games of the Wisconsin Badgers, the 15th overall pick in 2019 has only made slight progress in the development of crucial NHL skills. Due to his environment, achieving significant growth in those aspects could prove difficult.

This year was always going to be challenging for prospects all over the world given the tightrope needed to walk to play hockey during a pandemic. Games are crammed together, postponed, or canceled entirely. Nothing stands for certain.

On top of that, Wisconsin was hit hard by NHL contracts for Alex Turcotte and K’Andre Miller, and by the departure of Dylan Holloway to Team Canada’s World Junior camp in October.

For Wisconsin to stay afloat in the Big Ten Conference, the offensive load of Turcotte, Miller, and Holloway had to be shouldered by the remaining top players, and especially Caufield. From the start, the scorer decided he was going to carry the offence as best as he could. Ten games have passed and he has already fired 93 times at the net. That’s an increase of 2.2 shots per game over last year.

The Habs prospect is simply drilling goalies. He releases from all areas of the ice, even with barely any angle to do so in hope that a puck or two slip past the goalie’s coverage. Most players would be discouraged to adopt this style of play, but can a low-danger shot really be called as such when it’s fired off the stick of the best pure sniper in the NCAA?

Shot selection

Yes, it can.

The sheer volume of pucks Caufield fires, through pure luck of the draw, might provide a win to Wisconsin at some point this season, but goalies remain quite talented in the NCAA. Of his 93 shot attempts, half came from outside the slot and only one found the net — a beautiful, precise, but barely repeatable laser from the blue line. It was the kind of goal that makes a player think he is meant to fire from this distance, when in reality, an almost random occurrence is guiding him down the wrong path.

Overshooting has its downsides, both in the short and long term. Caufield is training his mind to solve every offensive situation with his release. When the puck gets to him in the corner of the offensive zone and defenders jump to pressure him? Better try to sneak one between the goalie’s leg and the post. The defence has pushed him to the top of the zone? Maybe the puck could float in from the middle of the blue line.

The Habs prospect might have an above-average ability to score goals from the periphery, but unless he can picture the hole in the goalie’s coverage and feels it in his bones that his shot is going in, he would be better off holding on to possession. Most periphery shots aren’t worth forfeiting the puck for, even if they come from the stick of Caufield.

A low-angle shot that misses or rebounds often becomes a 50/50 race for a loose puck. The Badgers’ team composition mirrors their emblematic animal; their top players are quick and sturdy, but on the smaller side, so forcing them into board battles for possession versus towering defenders is not be the best idea.

Caufield would be better off aiming for teammates than the net, and if they aren’t immediately open, cutting back away from defenders to give his teammates more time to free themselves. His goal should be to build the offensive presence for his team. Each new pass forces the defence to adjust. The more it moves, the more breakdowns happens, which leads to holes in the slot for Caufield to jump into and fire.

Take a look at some of the sequences below. The puck cycles between multiple Wisconsin players and Caufield manages to slip away from coverage for shots near the net.

He has developed the necessary tools to build offensive sequences in his time with Wisconsin. From a straight shooter, he evolved into more of a dual-threat attacker, one capable of beating defenders and goalies but also of deceptively threading pucks to teammates to allow them to do the same.

His one-touch pass to Jack Gorniak for a back-door goal last weekend was a testament to this honed passing ability. He located his teammate before receiving, angled his feet, and bounced the puck through defenders to a player who stood open at the far post.

Of course, passing sequences often fail, but at worst the end result is about the same as a low-danger shot — a 50/50 retrieval, a forecheck, or a backcheck. However, if they succeed, the chances of scoring go up.

Off-puck offence

Creating more passing plays would also allow Caufield to practise what was his best ability with the U.S. Development Program: his offensive timing. Jack Hughes and Trevor Zegras, Caufield’s centres at the time, usually had ahold of the puck, so the diminutive winger learned to do his best work away from it. He hunted pockets of space and attacked them as his centres became ready to pass.

Unfortunately, this exceptional talent has been dormant for the past year. We only see glimpses of it due to Caufield’s and Wisconsin’s difficulty to establish offensive-zone presence. He hasn’t been paired with playmakers capable of locating him in an instant when he pops open or, even better, of anticipating where and how he will pop open (which could partly explain why Caufield is keeping or shooting most pucks he gets).

In Wisconsin, Caufield is now the playmaker. The puck is on his stick more often than not. That has its advantages, like the development of his passing ability and his transition game. He has become one of the team’s main transporters due to his abilities to cut around NCAA defences.

From Mitch Brown’s tracking project

The downside of that puck-dominant game is that Caufield isn’t working on his offensive anticipation. He isn’t working on finding the best routes to approach the play as a shooter or on controlling his speed to arrive in the right spot at the right time. The scoring games of other small wingers like Alex DeBrincat and Brad Marchand tells us that Caufield’s best path to racking up goals in the NHL is to develop those off-puck abilities. Those established NHLers don’t outmuscle defenders, but sneak past them. Caufield will have to continue to find ways to do the same.

Breakout tendencies

This brings us to the other element that is shaping Caufield’s offence: the way he breaks out of his own zone. I used to think that Wisconsin ran a stretch breakout system, where wingers rush or slash through the neutral zone as soon as the team gets control of the puck in order to catch the defence off-guard or push it back. But at least this season, the Badgers have exited the zone more in a controlled, five-man group — except for Caufield.

He likes to run out of the defensive end, at least more than his teammates. In the winger position especially, when his team snatches the puck, and sometimes even slightly before they establish control, he darts away like a sprinter out of the blocks.

Those early exits earn him breakaways at times. When the defence manages to pick him up in time, however, Caufield’s options become more limited. Teammates have a hard time connecting with him at a distance, and even when they manage to slap or lob the puck to his stick, he is forced into a one-on-one with a defender. He has a hard time pulling ahead in those situations. His go-to move, a glide followed by a toe-dragged shot, hasn’t rewarded him with goals.

A better choice of play for Caufield would be to keep striding to dangle the defender with more speed or to cut across the surface to make both the defender and the goalie move, increasing the chance of scoring. Bonus points if he can release in-stride, which he has shown a special ability for.

The best way for Caufield to maximize his rush effectiveness, however, would be to involve teammates and create layers of attack. If the winger is allowed to criss-cross and exchange with teammates, he can more easily manipulate defenders, which in turn enables him to enlarge his gap to them and create more and better shooting opportunities after entering the offensive zone. A few of his goals last year came from clever passing plays in transition with Holloway and other teammates.

Breakout skills

Through his breakout tendencies, Caufield has trained himself to find the best routes to receive the puck, not unlike an NFL wide receiver. He learned to turn on the jets at the right time to catch defenders napping, to cut away from them to pop open, and to manipulate their movement to open space for teammates. As Montreal uses slashing and stretching wingers quite often, those skills will serve him in the NHL.

That being said, it will take the forward some time to learn how to break the puck out on the strong-side, from a standstill on the boards, and with a defender on his heels. As NCAA defencemen want to avoid getting beaten by long plays, they tend to back off early against the breakout or keep three players high when they forecheck. As a result, the Badgers wingers rarely dig pucks from the wall under pressure; they usually have more time to execute their passes in the defensive zone.

Therefore, Caufield doesn’t have as much experience with pressured board breakouts, and those could prove especially challenging considering his smaller stature. He has the handling part of it down, he can redirect the puck quickly to teammates or chip the puck off the wall to them, but nothing short of perfect timing and awareness will allow him to get out of those situations with control of the puck in the NHL.

Puck-protection

Some of you have probably seen Caufield’s impression of Peter Forsberg from earlier this season. As he entered the offensive zone with the puck and saw a defender skating to meet him, he abruptly cut to the middle and, without losing possession, reverse-hit the opponent, flattening him on the ice. His pure strength and balance have improved this season. Defenders have a harder time pushing him around and knocking him down. That said, the opponent he rammed was 5’3” Sean Dhooge. Caufield still has a way to go to handle NHL defenders in the same way.

Puck-protection is not (entirely) strength-dependent. Strength helps resist back-pressure, buying time for a player to find an escape in tight quarters, but small forwards in the NHL don’t outmuscle defenders so much as elude them with timely moves.

Skate fakes, cutbacks, and accelerations off the wall have started to appear in Caufield’s wall plays, but most of the time he is protecting the puck only with his hands. The forward is over-reliant on fancy moves like bouncing the disc behind his back on the boards as defenders approach. It rarely works. He should look to gain space from the wall, absorb the first shock as much as possible — he is getting better at it — and use the transfer of momentum to explode away. Caufield is quicker than most at the NCAA level.

In all the little details that go into protecting the puck, one element seems to hold him back most, however: his lack of awareness of outlets.

Simply put, Caufield doesn’t shoulder-check enough as he retrieves pucks or doesn’t look around as defenders angle him to the wall on the periphery. He locks himself in ‘one-on-one’ mode and forgets that he could find open ice, fake a move, and break away or, even better, pass to a teammate in better position. This tunnel vision also happens off the rush.

Caufield’s cutback timing and puck-protection posture will naturally improve as he gets more repetitions of board battles. They will be much more frequent on professional surfaces than on the often larger NCAA ones. However, pro defenders will also stick to him a lot better due to their superior range and skating ability. It will take time for Caufield to develop enough tricks, explosiveness, and awareness to come out ahead.

Defence

After tracking the first two weekend of games for Caufield against Notre Dame and Michigan, Mitch Brown had this to say:

The stats tell the same tale as the tape. Over those games, Caufield was one of, if not the best defensive players on his team. He backtracked harder than before, showed stronger shoulder-check habits in the defensive zone, and pressured opponents on the forecheck more intensely.

Unfortunately, Mitch may have jinxed it with this tweet. The winger reverted back to some of his old habits the very next week. Those aren’t necessarily grave right now, but they might prevent him from earning a top-six NHL spot at the start of his career.

In the defensive zone, he stares at the opposing puck-carrier a little too long, which allows sneaky attackers to slip behind him for back-door plays. He is also not one to jump down from his position to cover teammates’ mistakes very often. Let’s just say that when the house is on fire, Caufield is more the guy surveying the damage from the sidewalk than the one rushing into the building.

It is the same when he’s up ice. While fellow Habs prospect Gorniak maniacally hunts opponents as the F1 and forces them to cough up the puck, Caufield takes a more measured approach — two stick lengths to be exact. He draws circles away from opposing puck-carriers, aiming to cut their passes more than pressure them head-on. That can be clever in certain situations, but most opponents at his level have learned to recognize when they are given the space to transport the puck.

Of course, some of the prospect’s defensive deficiencies can be explained by the pressure to score that he likely puts on himself. Wisconsin opened up its season with two wins against Notre Dame, but then dropped the next two games against Michigan, scoring only three goals total. Those performances probably had something to do with Caufield turning up his offensive aggressiveness at the expense of his defence. In a situation where he would descend to protect the slot in the first two weekends of games, maybe in subsequent weeks he had more trouble ignoring the little enthusiastic voice in his head telling him to ‘‘score, score, score!’’

Still, the opening weeks remain encouraging for Caufield’s defensive development. He showed he can make stops at an above-average level. Now it is about getting him in the right mindset to continue to deliver.

It is also hard to isolate Caufield’s own tendencies from coaching directives. Wisconsin’s staff could be giving a little more leash to their best scorer, allowing him to cut a corner or launch himself ahead of teammates when he senses an opportunity. We have seen such permissions given in the past.

Projection

Taking all of this information into consideration, I think Caufield will need some time in the AHL before he makes a meaningful contribution to Montreal’s lineup. How much time? A few months maybe, but perhaps a year, or even two years. That last timeframe would be surprising, but there is no need to rush him. The Habs have given themselves the luxury of time with their recent right-wing signings.

To dislodge one of Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, and Brendan Gallagher, the prospect will have to work on his decision-making in the offensive zone, particularly his shot selection, and synchronize his offensive timing with the professional game.

He also needs to develop more hard skills to go along with his massive repertoire of softer ones. His release, playmaking, and one-on-one abilities will serve him well in the NHL, but he will seldom get opportunities to use those abilities unless he learns to successfully break the puck out and protect it along the wall in the offensive zone.

Of course, I might be underestimating Caufield. Maybe he leverages his elite scoring touch and his ability to attack pockets of space and makes the leap to the NHL as soon as the end of this season. I will certainly pay close attention to the upcoming World Junior Championship to sharpen my projection, as a different system and more puck-dominant linemates might reveal a different side of the prospect. We might see him deploy some skills he underuses with Wisconsin.