Caufield appears poised for breakout as Canadiens begin pivotal road trip

Montreal Canadiens’ Cole Caufield skates during an NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators in Montreal, Saturday, May 1, 2021. (Graham Hughes/CP)

MONTREAL — Watch out now, Cole Caufield’s coming.

And it’s not because he entered the season as the betting favourite for the Calder Trophy—fresh off an impressive NHL debut that saw him pot four goals and five points in his first 10 games before scoring another four goals and 12 points in 20 playoff games—and he’s due. It’s mostly because of a couple of conversations Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme had with him after he struggled to earn a single point through his first five games of the season.

“I think that he’s been overthinking a bit,” Ducharme said on Saturday morning, hours before Caufield notched his first assist of the season in a 6-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings at the Bell Centre.

“I talked about it with him that I find, when he’s attacking the zone, he’s not continuing to skate and he’s making himself predictable,” Ducharme said. “He’s getting too far away from the puck instead of being closer to it, he’s looking to shoot to a spot that’s the size of the puck—and it’s normal stuff when you’re struggling and want to score, but you’ve got to aim for a bigger target instead of looking for a smaller one. I find there’s little things that he can do to be in better control, to have the puck more often and be more involved instead of getting further away from it. I’ve asked him to get closer to the puck tonight, to play with speed, and to not become too predictable by stopping to skate.”

Caufield listened.

He benefited from that advice, too. The Wisconsin native, who Ducharme consistently praised for how quickly he applied lessons offered to him last season, was a different player on Saturday. He was dynamic, and the point he earned was just compensation for a much better and more concentrated effort.

Caufield did a lot less watching and a lot more playing and, as a result, had the stick on his puck far more often and had a much bigger impact on the flow of the game despite playing the second-least among Canadiens forwards.

Don’t get bogged down in the 13:02 he played. Of all the slumping Canadiens players coming into the game, Caufield appeared to be one of the furthest ones from unblocking—you have to wonder if the kid who shattered Auston Matthews’ scoring record with the United States National Development Team had ever gone five games without a goal or a point—and Ducharme is trying to ease him out of it by playing him in a more favourable matchup, which is something that clearly worked not only to his benefit but also to Tyler Toffoli’s and Mathieu Perreault’s on Saturday.

The line combined for three of Montreal’s six goals in the game, with all of them coming off Perreault’s stick, and Caufield finished with an expected-goals share of 73.8 per cent versus the 40 per cent he carried through the first five games.

One of the most interesting numbers to come out of the game was five—as in five shots Caufield took that were blocked—and it can be looked at a couple of different ways.

Of course, it’s an indication opposing teams know Caufield’s shot is his biggest weapon and they’re doing everything they can to get in front of it. That’s just something he’s going to have to deal with more and more as we go along.

But a scout we were chatting with at the Bell Centre on Saturday made the most salient point, saying, “at least the puck has been on his stick in a shooting position all night.”

That hadn’t been the case when Caufield registered three attempts in the 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday. He had maxed out at six attempts in the first game of the season before throwing seven at Detroit’s net on Saturday. And even if his shot was getting blocked a lot in the game, it opened up space for Toffoli and Perreault, who scored his second of the night because a Caufield-blocked-shot bouncing straight to Toffoli in the slot and left him open for a tap in.

If you watched the shift that produced that goal, it might have been Caufield’s most dominant one of the season. It started with the speed he carried into the zone. At no point thereafter did he stop moving his feet, and he helped keep the pressure alive before freeing himself to get his shot off, which was only blocked because a defenceman was trying to play goalie in front of Red Wings goalie Thomas Greiss.

“I don’t think he was great through the other games I watched this season, but he showed signs in this one that’s it’s coming,” the scout said. “You could see the confidence coming back, and guys like him tend to roll out of performances like that one.”

Guys like Caufield—20-year-olds who have played less than 40 games in the world’s best hockey league—sometimes need a nudge in the right direction.

Ducharme felt it was time for that and chose to speak to Caufield first on Friday, and then again on Saturday morning.

“I think he’s the kind of guy that can challenge the D with his speed and so on and with his skills,” the coach said. “And then at one point, when you see that you won’t be beating him, then you can delay a little, you can use different options from there. But if you slow down as soon as you touch the blue line, you become predictable as a forward.”

Caufield didn’t win the Hobey Baker last year by being predictable. He didn’t pile up goals at every level by being easy to read or defend. And if he builds on what he did in Saturday’s game by continuing to move his feet—and perhaps by getting a few more pucks through or around the bodies in front of him—he’ll be back to doing what he’s always done.

The timing couldn’t be better for it, with the Canadiens starting a pivotal early-season trip that will take them through Seattle, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim.

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