Why Canadiens’ Cole Caufield can be America’s next star

By | July 4, 2021

Cole Caufield has to be pretty comfortable wearing red, white and blue — or some combo of it — by now.

The wee winger played for the U.S. National Team Development Program (2017-19) and the national team at the U17s, U18s and world juniors. His second stint on the U20 team was golden. 

He wore red and white at the University of Wisconsin (2019-21), where he capped his collegiate career with the 2021 Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top men’s player. And now, he is sporting the bleu, blanc et rouge of the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final.

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“It’s pretty special, to be honest with you,” he said between Games 2 and 3. “I really didn’t expect this to happen in your first year, your first couple of years. But just to be in this moment, you kind of enjoy it every day.”

Just over two years ago, the 5-7 winger slipped down the draft board to the Canadiens at 15th overall.

“It’s a perfect fit. They have a great young team right now and I’m really looking forward to being part of something like that,” he said right after being selected in the 2019 draft in Vancouver.

Indeed. Considering what we’ve already seen, there are probably 14 teams kicking themselves now for not snagging the right winger.

At just 20 years old, the Stevens Point, Wis., native made his NHL debut against the Flames on April 26 and skated in 10 games, notching four goals and five points. He has now played in more playoff games than regular-season games in his young career. Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final was his 18th postseason contest and he has collected nine points (four goals, six assists) in them.

“He’s extremely talented,” Nate Leaman, Caufield’s head coach at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship, told Sporting News. “He’s a very good skater, very good on his edges. He can find holes quickly. He can transition, he’s got great transition skating, great transition hockey sense. And he can finish. To me, it seems the higher the pace, the better it fits his game.”

Skating on a line that includes fellow young stud Nick Suzuki and veteran Tyler Toffoli, he combines that speed and quickness with a deadly shot and an extreme desire to score goals. The desire is something Leaman picked up on when Caufield and Trevor Zegras were skating for the Americans’ gold medal-winning squad.

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“No matter what drill, no matter what time in a practice — it would be a warmup drill — they’re scoring and they’re legit, like, happy, excited to score,” he said. Leaman called the pair “game-breakers” and “difference-makers.”

That excitement, that desire to be “the guy” was also evident at Wisconsin, where he notched 30 goals in 31 games this past season.

“He’s confident. He’s a goal-scorer, man. Give me the puck, I’m going to shoot it in the net. He’s always been that way,” Wisconsin head coach Tony Granato said in April when he talked to SN in advance of Caufield’s first NHL game.

“It doesn’t matter if he’s playing in the NHL, he’s playing in college, he’s playing on the international game, playing pickup hockey. He loves to score, and he loves to help his team.”

While the Canadiens are still plying away in the Stanley Cup Final — and hoping to avoid a sweep on Monday — the page can already turn to next season. With just a handful of regular-season games under his belt, he’ll certainly be a top preseason contender for the Calder Trophy. And if the NHL does go to the Olympics in 2022, could he slip on his familiar USA Hockey jersey?

The U.S. hasn’t won gold at the Olympics in men’s ice hockey since the country “believed in miracles” in 1980 at Lake Placid.

“He’s a kid that just wants to win,” said Leaman. “His first priority is winning. His second priority is scoring but his first priority is winning.”

Could this kid with the big grin and happy-go-lucky attitude, the one who said “I hate to lose” at the draft, the one of whom Toffoli said: “We haven’t had our coffee in the morning and he’s already smiling and bouncing around,” play for his country again? He has struggled on the international stage in the last two world juniors (three goals in 12 games), but he’s quickly becoming one of the United States’ biggest weapons in the NHL at both ends of the rink.

And maybe that’s what the U.S. needs to get over the hump. Guys like Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews, Alex DeBrincat (whom Caufield likes to emulate), Jack Eichel, Caufield’s national team buddy Jack Hughes and yes, Cole Caufield.