If you could script a player’s first career NHL goal, you would have to go with an overtime winner, right? What if the rookie does it for a team that has struggled mightily in OT all year? And what if the rookie does the same thing the very next game?
That’s not the script to a Disney movie, it’s the start of Cole Caufield’s Canadiens career, capping off a year during which he won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as the top player in NCAA hockey, and tore through the American Hockey League for two games before joining the Habs.
For a team that has struggled to post comeback wins, the Canadiens rattled off three straight last week in exactly that fashion, capped by a pair of overtime strikes by the 20-year-old Caufield.
His injection into the lineup has been a breath of fresh air. However, heading into Thursday’s game against the Maple Leafs, he has only scored in 3-on-3 play.
It’s too early in his career to define his play, but it’s fair to ask whether he’s going to make a big difference in 5-vs-5 play. In overtime, a speedy, skilled scorer is going to be able to make plays that aren’t there normally. That’s why the Calgary Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau was the league’s best 3-on-3 player for several seasons.
Small NHL sample size aside, how has Caufield fared in 5-on-5 hockey so far? Considering his limited minutes, we’ll approach everything individually as a rate stat, or how often a play is occurring per 60 minutes of a player’s ice time. Let’s compare him with the Canadiens’ most consistent 5-vs-5 goal-scorers.
Caufield hasn’t netted a goal at 5-vs-5, so his goal rate is lower than this group. However, when you look at factors that produce goals in the NHL, he’s keeping pace with Brendan Gallagher in expected goals, just a hair behind the Canadiens’ most dangerous even-strength scorer for the last several years.
In terms of scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances, Caufield isn’t quite at Gallagher’s level, but he outpaces Tyler Toffoli in both areas, which is shocking considering Toffoli is enjoying a stellar season.
In terms of shot impacts, which aren’t shown on the graph, the Canadiens have been about four per cent better at controlling shot attempts while Caufield is on the ice than when he’s off it, ranking fourth among Canadiens forwards.
In small samples, shot attempts will give us the best idea of what to expect from future performance because there are so many data points. But the Canadiens are also 6.5 per cent better in expected goals, and nearly 12 per cent better at controlling high danger chances while Caufield is on the ice.
We’re looking at a minuscule number of minutes here, and Caufield has been playing mostly on the fourth line, away from top checkers. For the most part, a hot start in the underlying numbers doesn’t mean a lot for a prospect, but it’s tough to be buoyed by teammates on the fourth line. Quality of competition matters, but quality of teammates has repeatedly been shown to be much more important in influencing on-ice performance.
There’s also Caufield’s history to take into account. Shooting the lights out isn’t that uncommon for an excited rookie over a short time period. For example, everyone remembers Ryan Poehling’s hat-trick debut two seasons ago, but while Poehling has never been a goal-scorer, Caufield has.
With 49 goals in 67 games in his NCAA career, 30 in 31 this season and three goals in two AHL games, it’s entirely reasonable to assume that this kind of shot and scoring-chance production is very real.
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Hockey sense is often looked at from a playmaking perspective, but Caufield appears to have a rare and unique scorer’s instinct. The best goal-scorers see opportunities before they appear, and Caufield’s first goal, against the Senators, was a great example of that.
Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry made an incredible play, but Caufield’s recognition of Tim Stützle’s defensive miscue was instantaneous and he dashed into open ice like a shark sensing blood in the water. His second goal, against the Leafs, was similar as he pounced as soon as William Nylander and John Tavares engaged Petry. Caufield, knowing he had space to burn, made no mistake.
Caufield’s ceiling is unknown, but he seems to have energized the Canadiens and could be the pure sniper the team has desperately needed since Max Pacioretty was traded to Vegas in 2018.
Andrew Berkshire is a Montreal-based hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.