When the Montreal Canadiens drafted Cole Caufield 15th overall in 2019, there were questions about how the shooter would adjust to the NCAA. After a successful season, he jumped up these rankings.
He led the Badgers and the Big Ten in scoring as a freshman, making him the easy selection as the conference’s Freshman of the Year. He had 24 points in 24 conference games, and his 36 points overall were 10 more than any Wisconsin teammate.
He had a solid start to his season this year, despite the team losing top talent in Alex Turcotte, Sean Dhooghe, and K’Andre Miller.
The voting for Caufield was remarkably consistent with all but two votes either third or fourth. The only exceptions were one spot on either side of that range. It’s clear that the top five is all remarkably close, and with the oldest in the group only 21, it is a debate that will extend for a while yet.
I had him third because I think his upside is the best of the non-NHL players in the ranking. He may be a year or so away from playing professionally, but I have little doubt that he’ll be able to succeed at the next level.
Top 25 Under 25 History
Caufield made his T25U25 debut at #7, and rose four spots this year thanks to a solid NCAA season. It will be interesting to see where he goes in this ranking, as it would be a big jump to pass the players ahead of him, and there are several players very close behind.
History of #3
There is no debating Caufield’s strength as a player. You don’t score 72 goals, breaking the U.S. National Team Development Program records set by Auston Matthews and Phil Kessel, by luck. He’s an elite shooter who doesn’t need a scoring chance to have an opportunity to score goals.
At the Canadiens’ development camp in 2019, every time he wound up, everyone in attendance went to the edge of their seats. Despite his stature, the puck just rockets off his stick. It is something I have only seen rivalled by Shea Weber and Marie-Philip Poulin during in-person viewings. There’s an anticipation that is hard to describe.
What makes Caufield a great scorer isn’t just his shot, however good it is. What makes him a great scorer is the ability to find space and almost disappear in the offensive zone despite everyone on the opposing team knowing he’s the main threat.
He is able to score goals in a variety of ways. He’s not a one-trick pony, and the versatility makes him very hard to stop.
There were questions about how his play would change when he wasn’t surrounded by elite talent, and how he would adjust to a jump in quality of opposition. Those were largely answered without issue. This season, being played without the quality supporting cast around him, has forced him to create rather than just finish.
The thing that would really round out his offensive game is his vision and passing ability in the offensive zone. If he could use his shot as a decoy to find open teammates, especially on the power play, it would really take his game to the next level.
It is something he has done this year, mostly out of necessity from being the star of his Wisconsin team.
L k back: @gorny11 taps in a @colecaufield pass! pic.twitter.com/qwWspiNfip— Wisconsin Hockey (@BadgerMHockey) December 5, 2020
There’s one reason that Caufield dropped in the 2019 NHL Draft, and that’s simply his size. Small players have started to stake their claims to NHL stardom, but it’s still a stigma that makes players like Caufield the exception rather than the rule.
A few years ago, it’s possible that Caufield’s drop to 15th overall may have gone several rounds, and it is because of the stigma slowly going away that Caufield is considered the top prospect that he is.
Size alone is not the only concern when it comes to Caufield. There are specific things that come from that — strength on the puck, in the corners, and the ability to fight through battles in order to allow his skill to shine at the next level.
Because of his size, the fact that he is not an elite skater brings some concerns as well. He’s not a bad skater, but some wonder whether he’ll be able to create the same space at higher levels.
The main criticisms of his offensive game were whether he could create chances on his own, or if he was just a finisher. His play so far this season has him taking more control. It isn’t the strength of his game, but he’s showing that he can create.
His play without the puck has also been labelled as a weakness, but like so many of his perceived weaknesses, while it’s not as strong as his strengths, it’s far from a negative, and one that will improve with time and proper coaching.
In an alternate universe, it’s possible that Caufield would be playing professionally right now, but given the reality, playing in the NCAA has allowed him to play actual games and puts him ahead of most North American prospects — even those who have signed professional contracts.
There were rumours of him playing in Europe and turning pro, but once it became clear that Wisconsin would start their NCAA season, he stayed in school. It may have only been a temporary advantage, however. A COVID-19 outbreak at the University of Wisconsin after he left for Team USA’s World Junior camp has already postponed games for both men’s and women’s hockey teams at the University of Wisconsin.
Caufield is more than just a shooter, and in a way having that one elite skill has taken away from the other elements of his game. That will improve once the players around him get better — not because he needs it, but because he thinks the game in an advanced way.
His ability to find space is something that elite teammates will take advantage of, and something that his Wisconsin teammates have trouble doing. It’s why he was so successful with Jack Hughes, and why certain Canadiens players are eagerly anticipating him turning professional.
With uncertainty facing him at Wisconsin after the World Juniors, the tournament set to begin later this month in Edmonton will be important for him. There is still uncertainty facing the tournament itself, of course, but if it happens, he will likely be given a bigger role than he was a year ago, when he only scored one goal and added an assist in five games.
It would be fair to assume that Caufield, who was close to signing a professional contract after his freshman season, will be likely to sign at the end of the current one. Although what happens this year may have some effect on that.
Caufield has all the tools to be a successful scoring winger in the NHL, and it’s only a matter of time before he gets that opportunity.
Jack Han, writer of Hockey Tactics 2020 and former Eyes on the Prize contributor, joined the podcast to discuss Cole Caufiled: