Canadiens’ Caufield learning to deal with noise, rookie growing pains

Canadiens forward Cole Caufield discusses how he's dealt with scoring struggles for the first time in his hockey career, and how he's been able to stay level headed by chatting with guys like Jack Hughes, who went through similar issues.

BROSSARD, Que. — For Cole Caufield, eight days away from the rink was a respite from more than just hockey.

On Monday, after the Montreal Canadiens held their second practice since a COVID-19 outbreak forced them into quarantine on Jan. 2, Caufield said he used the time off to get “a break from all the noise.”

We imagine that was easier to do with Canadiens practices and games halted.

But it’s probably been pretty hard since Caufield landed in Montreal last winter and helped the Canadiens reach the Stanley Cup Final. He has heard more noise here than he ever could’ve imagined over his formative years in Wisconsin, and it’s likely been completely stifling since coming off an impressive debut and starting off this season as the prohibitive betting favourite for the Calder Trophy.

The 15th overall pick in 2019 was expected to pick up right where he left off after arriving in the NHL in style with four goals and 12 points in 20 playoff games.

Instead, Caufield stumbled out of the gate in the pre-season and has since collected just one goal and seven points in 26 regular-season games partitioned by a six-game stint he did with the AHL’s Laval Rocket.

As a result, there’s been constant chatter around Caufield’s game for more than four months — most of it negative, which is also something he wasn’t used to playing in Wisconsin. It got so loud at one point, it was impossible to tune out .

In a market like this, with sports radio blasting in two languages and the passion of fans spilling over from call-ins to all social media platforms, avoiding the noise isn’t as simple as popping in ear plugs. And even if Caufield says staying off those applications like Twitter and Instagram is a good idea — and he did say that on Monday — I don’t know anyone from his age group putting that into practice.

I also follow him on the ‘gram, and he posts more stories in a week than I do in a year.

But Caufield doesn’t have to delete those apps from his phone to develop thicker skin and a stronger filter.

And if he’s able to that, it will make him feel less and less like he needs a break from it all as his career continues to unfold on the massive stage Montreal offers him.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Whether Caufield wants to admit it or not, that’s a process, and he’s still learning how to find his way through it.

It’s good that the 21-year-old recognizes why feeding into the noise around him serves him no benefit. When he says, “one night people will love you, the next night they’re just looking to throw hate,” and that, “you kind of just stay levelheaded, stay within yourself and just listen to the people that want to help you and see you succeed,” it’s clear that he at least knows what he should and shouldn’t take from the buzz.

But when he said on Monday, “I don’t really pay too much attention to the outside noise,” and that “it’s just something inside and I don’t really let the outside noise affect me too much,” it was hard to take him at face value. It was Caufield who brought up the subject when he was asked if the time off allowed him to put his season to date in perspective, and saying he used the time to take a break from the buzz around him speaks to what end he’ll have to continue to work on this season.

He’s not alone, though.

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There are many top-end players going through the steps as well, and there’s an emerging one he can easily relate to — Jack Hughes.

The top pick in Caufield’s draft year was his centreman in the United States National Development Team Program and remains one of his closest friends. He is a sounding board for Caufield, but also a role model.

Hughes has experienced everything Caufield has since joining the New Jersey Devils nearly three years ago. Regardless of the markets being different, the exposure has been the same. And Caufield has gained perspective watching Hughes deal with it.

He’s seen Hughes score just seven goals and 21 points in 61 games of an underwhelming rookie season. He’s seen him take a step forward, but not a leap in Year 2, with 11 goals and 31 points in 56 games. And surely Caufield saw enough of the messages that poured in on social media suggesting his uber-talented friend might be a bust as he struggled to meet extremely high expectations.

Now Caufield has seen Hughes post nine goals and 20 points in 19 games with the Devils this season.

“Jack and I talk a lot about that stuff particularly, and obviously you can see how his first year went and how this year has gone,” Caufield said. “He’s a totally different player.

“It’s something we take very seriously is how well we play each night, but for us it’s just sticking to what works and playing the game the right way. And you know at a certain time it’s going to give you some bounces at some point, but you’ve just got to stay levelheaded and play hockey the right way. You can’t really cheat the game too much because you’re not going to get things going your way, so I think that’s just kind of how my mindset’s been right now. At a certain point, it’s going to come, but you’ve just got to keep your head down and keep working.”

As for avoiding getting caught up in everyone else’s expectations, Caufield said Hughes has helped him with that.

“When we do talk hockey, it’s all about keeping your drive and keeping that motivation no matter what the score is and playing a full 60 every night and just trying to control what you can control and not let those outside factors get inside your head,” he said. “I know what I can do on the ice, and it’s just a matter of doing it consistently every night. I think that’s something as a young player that you learn from each night. Eighty-two games is a long season, so you’re going to have ups and downs. But the more you can stay confident and consistent with your game, I think that’s when you’re going to take strides in your game.”

Ben Chiarot sees a player who’s finding his way at this level — one who’s ahead of where he was when he first emerged in Winnipeg eight years ago.

“Something that took me awhile to learn — and I was lucky to be surrounded by guys like Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd and guys that every single day are working to improve and get better no matter how good they were — is every day is about getting better,” Chiarot said. “And I think that’s something that Cole already has. He has that mindset. You can see the way he works in practice, and he pushes himself.

“He’s starting. He’s so young. And I think if maintains that mindset, which I know he will, and maintains that work ethic, he’s only going to get better, and things will start to click for him. I think he’s got a really bright future just based on the fact that he works and pushes himself every single day like those top guys that I was lucky enough to play with when I was a young guy.”

The remaining 48 games offer Caufield a good chance to prove it — most importantly to himself.

He’ll have to adjust to do it. And the more he’s able to properly filter the noise around his game, the more he’ll be able to tap into the process of improving as a player.

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