Even just a handful of years ago, the chances of Cole Caufield, a 5-foot-7 winger, being chosen in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft would be slim to none. However, the NHL has become much more accommodating to smaller players when they come packaged with tantalizing skill.
No player has epitomized this quite like 5-foot-7 Alex Debrincat, who scored 41 goals this past season with Chicago after slipping to 39th in the 2016 Draft despite putting up 51-goal seasons in his draft and draft-minus-one years. Debrincat deserved to go a lot higher, and many teams are kicking themselves as a result.
Lessons have been learned, and this year Caufield is not slipping out of the first round; in fact, he’s pressing for a spot in the top ten. Let’s dig in.
- Age/Birthdate: 18 / January 2, 2001
- Birthplace: Stevens Point, Wisconsin, USA
- Frame: 5-foot-7 / 163 lbs
- Position: Right Wing
- Handedness: Right
- Draft Year Team: U.S. National Development Program
- U17 WHC All-Star Team
- U17 WHC Gold Medal
- U17 WHC Most Goals (8)
- U18 WJC Silver Medal
- U18 WJC All-Star Team
- U18 WJC Best Forward
- U18 WJC Bronze Medal
- U18 WJC Most Goals (14)
- U18 WJC Most Valuable Player
- U18 WJC Top 3 Player on Team
2018-19 Stat Rundown
|GP||G||A||P||INV%||5v5 Pr INV%||5v5 ePr60||SEAL||Sh/GP||Sh%||5v5 eTOI||GF%||GF%rel||GD60 rel||XLS%||Top XLS%||XPR|
(Editor’s note on the stats and charts in this article: the U.S. National Team Development Program is a unique program in that its roster plays in several different leagues over the course of the season. Typically, we’ve just used their stats against USHL competition. However, this year their NCAA stats have also been incorporated in some circumstances.
Games played, goals, assists, points and shot data include all U.S. NTDP games. Any data derived from game sheets (involvement percentage, eP60, SEAL data, and on-ice data), as well as any charts that reference “USDP” as the league refer to U.S. NTDP games against both USHL and NCAA competition. pGPS data is based off of USHL games alone.)
Cole Caufield is first and foremost a goal scorer; there’s no point in dancing around that. With an absurd 72 goals in 64 games this past season, Caufield scored more goals in a single season than anyone else in the history of the U.S. National Team Development Program, shattering the previous record held by Auston Matthews by a margin of 17 goals, and holds the Program career record as well, with 126 over two years (82 at the U18 level).
When a player scores goals at that sort of rate, it should go without saying that he can score goals in a multitude of ways. Of course he can score goals from range, either with a surgically precise wrist shot, or with a perfectly placed one-timer from the circle:
He can also score goals in tight to the net, unafraid of battling bigger bodies to whack at loose pucks:
Perhaps his greatest asset to scoring goals, however, is his ability to elude coverage. Caufield is an undoubtedly elite goal scoring talent, and yet, baffling, he seems to be constantly open and unmarked in the offensive zone.
See, for example, this next play, as Caufield (#13) drifts back and appears to vanish from the consciousness of these college defencemen, before slowly drifting back into the slot, wide open for a quick pass and a dangerous scoring chance.
This is a remarkably frequent occurrence, and it allows Caufield to put a ton of shots on net. While he has shown the ability to take pucks off opponents with good body positioning and tidy stickwork, he’s not overly involved in puck retrieval. He typically relies on others to get him the puck, but Caufield is so good at making himself available, it’s nearly impossible to consider that reliance a weakness.
When it comes to passing, particularly in the offensive zone, the onus doesn’t rely on the passer alone: the recipient can and should do things that make it easier for passes to get through, and arrive in opportune spots; I would call this being an active recipient, and it’s nearly as important to passing as the role of the passer himself. Cold Caufield has turned this into an art form, and while he typically had elite talents Jack Hughes and Alex Turcotte as his centres, Caufield was constantly receiving from everyone on the ice, forwards and defencemen alike, simply because he was always open.
Moreover, Caufield strategically worked himself into high-danger shot locations to receive those passes, allowing him to quickly convert passes into scoring chances. In the event that he doesn’t have a direction path to the net, Caufield maneuvers quickly in tight spaces, taking great to manipulate angles in a way that maximizes threat. He’s also a master of the toe drag, using it frequently to both avoid checks and obscure the goaltender’s view of the puck.
Caufield is most definitely a shoot-first player, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a capable passer. His vision, puck handling and creativity in the offensive zone make him a talented playmaker in his own right, despite the fact that scoring goals is certainly his primary calling.
In transition, Caufield generally deferred to Jack Hughes, a transitional wizard, to handle zone exits and entries. Caufield gets low along the wall to support his defencemen in his own zone, feeding the puck to his centre before dashing up ice and finding open space once in the offensive zone. When he does receive the puck in the neutral zone, it usually isn’t for long, quickly passing the puck back where it came from or to another streaking forward.
In this next clip, Caufield takes the puck in the neutral zone from Hughes (knocking it out of mid-air I might add), and immediately dishes the puck through traffic to Zegras. Zegras then find Caufield dashing in behind the defender for another scoring chance.
This strategy suits Caufield’s skill set best: he’s shifty and incredibly agile, but doesn’t show great top end speed. He appears to know his limitations and uses his linemates to transition plays rather than trying to force them on his own and risking turnovers.
He even works some of his eye-catching creativity into transitional play, such as this deft backhand redirection to Hughes as they initiate a breakout:
You often hear about players either fitting a top six role or a bottom six role. The truth is, that delineation has mostly become a thing of the past, with successful teams finding ways of adding scoring to all of their lines and not subjecting one or two of them to a defence-only mentality.
That said, one does have to wonder about Caufield’s ability to achieve success down the lineup. Given his propensity for finding space in the offensive zone, he could have a fourth line plug piling up shot assists in no time, once they gain the offensive zone. The issue may exist prior to that, as Caufield has been largely reliant on others to get into the offensive zone and isn’t driving his lines there on his own accord. Without a transitional driver on his line, Caufield may have trouble generating offence, and for that reason he may be required to stick high in the lineup.
That seems like a pretty minor concern, however. Caufield is an incredibly smart and talented player, destined to be the triggerman on a first line in the NHL in the relatively near future. I don’t imagine too many coaches will be concerned about how he’ll perform down the lineup.
A key part of the analysis for Cole Caufield is something that similarly plagued Alex Debrincat, and I’m not referring to height. Certainly that 5-foot-7 measurement was met with a dose of skepticism, but Debrincat also has doubters because of who he was playing with: in 2014-15, he was the triggerman for Connor McDavid (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) and in 2015-16 he performed the same role for Dylan Strome.
Caufield is in a similar position, benefiting from setups from either Jack Hughes, the presumptive first overall pick in this draft, or Alex Turcotte, a player who will surely be gone in the top ten. As mentioned in the scouting report above, Caufield appeared to accept this role as a beneficiary, and excelled at it to such a degree that it seems unfair to penalize him for it.
For his part, on-ice goal with-or-without-you data indicates that both Caufield and Hughes benefitted from being on the ice together, rather than it being a one-way relationship.
Much the same can be said of his production rates, which don’t suffer when away from Hughes. This scoring network (which includes games against USHL and college competition, capturing 41 of his goals) demonstrates the diversity of the assists on his goals. Unsurprisingly Jack Hughes has been involved in plenty of them, but a total of 14 other players assisted on Caufield goals in this sample, 12 of which assisted on multiple tallies.
Caufield operated at a shooting percentage of 26% this season; that’s very high, but it’s not as high as one might expect given a 72-goal season. Caufield put 267 shots on net, good for 4.3 per game. During the games I watched, he took great care in his shot selection, amassing large quantities of shots from dangerous areas, rather than just anywhere on the ice. It’s likely that his determination to shoot from high percentage areas contributed to his high shooting percentage, while his overall shot volume helped him reach such lofty numbers.
pGPS wasn’t able to find any statistical matches for Caufield, being of both small stature and extraordinary production. Given his age and height, I’ve put together the following cohort spectrum chart based on all potential matches before considering production. The green line represents Caufield’s points per game, well passed the 99th percentile. The expected likelihood of success based trends upwards significantly between the 90th and 99th percentiles of production, indicating that Caufield’s projection is somewhere in excess of 33%, the highest on the chart. That’s about all pGPS can tell us, given that Caufield is so far above and beyond all similar players.
Simply put, Caufield is the best pure goal scorer in this draft; both the numbers and the eye test bear that out. His lack of top speed, average forced turnover rates and deference to others in transition keep him from being one of the top all around players in this class, but as a triggerman and offensive dynamo he is on the path to becoming a star.
For me, Caufield is nestled in the third tier of prospects, and should be taken somewhere in the 7-12 range at the upcoming draft, though it’s not hard to imagine that he outperforms even that lofty draft slot if he hits his ceiling.
Rolling Season Data
Raw data for the charts used in this article came from eliteprospects.com, ushl.com and collegehockeyinc.com.
Some clips were pulled from videos from prospectshifts.com. Check out Cole Caufield’s page here (paywall). Other clips were pulled from original broadcasts, with all rights reserved for the original broadcast companies.
Dad, husband, hockey fan. Founder/analyst/editor/admin of NextGenHockey.ca. Contributor at CanucksArmy and the Nation Network. Blending video analysis and statistical modeling. pGPS, SEAL, etc. The Minnesota Twins are finally good again!