With Habs’ fans, it’s too often all or nothing. The team sucks or they will win the Stanley Cup. A player is the best or he’s hated and should be traded. A prospect is either a steal (how often have we heard that mentioned about the last couple of drafts?) or he’s a flop… at 19 years old, before playing a single game in the NHL. And in comes the great Sam Pollock with his timeless quote about the Montreal Canadiens’ fans: “[Fans] have their favourites and strong emotional attachments with them. A sports administrator who wants to be successful can never think that way.”
We are having a first hand example with Cole Caufield, a diminutive but dynamic goals’ scorer at the NCAA level who, for the second consecutive year, cannot seem to find the back of the net at the IIHF under-20 World Junior Championship. Last night, in a 11-0 romping by the USA over a lifeless Austrian team, Caufield didn’t find the back of the net and, for the most part, was invisible. It didn’t take less for many Habs’ fans to jump to the conclusion that the team should have drafted player X, Y and Z instead.
Prior to this World Juniors, many fans had Caufield pencilled in the Canadiens’ lineup starting next season. Worse, many had him start the season in Montreal had the NCAA decided to cancel the season. Today, he’s a flop. The truth lies somewhere in between. Caufield is an undersized forward who is far from being ready to make the jump to the NHL. In order to stand any chances, the 5-foot 7-inches, 165 pounds winger will have to gain even more strength. And that’s why they call it developing players. Yes, NHL scouts and GMs are referring to hockey skills, but it’s also physical and mental maturity that many of these young men need.
Last year at the World Juniors, many felt like Team USA’s coaching staff was unfair with their ice time and line combination, including with Caufield. Looking at the team’s lack of success, it was hard to argue against it. Caufield and Wisconsin then teammate Alex Turcotte were burning the NCAA yet, Team USA coaching staff refused to put them together throughout the tournament. Further, fans could afford to be patient as he was an 18 year-old playing in a 19 year-old (predominantly) tournament.
This year, the lines combination issue appears to be the same. Caufield, a natural goals’ scorer, isn’t being played with Turcotte or any other playmaker to feed him the puck at the right time. From having watched the first two games of this preliminary round, it is clear that there is no chemistry between Caufield and his linemates. Further, the Canadiens’ prospect has had to become the playmaker on his line. He has made some great feeds but the beneficiaries of his great passes have hit posts, missed the net or shot on the opposition’s goaltenders. He should have more points than he has right now.
Fans need to learn patience
I strongly believe that in order to get the most out of Caufield, you must find a centre or left winger who can dish him the puck when he’s in a position to shoot. As a coach, you need to find some chemistry and balance. I’ve watched Jacques Lemaire set up Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt. I’ve seen Wayne Gretzky feed Jari Kurri in Edmonton. Brett Hull has often said that he wouldn’t have had the career that he’s had if it weren’t for Adam Oates centering his line.
So why is Team USA’s coaching staff so stubborn against giving Caufield a quality centre? Your guess is as good as mine. But I would love to see Cole being to the right of Turcotte for a few games. Something tells me that we wouldn’t be having this discussion today.
Rest assured though, Caufield’s performances at the World Juniors won’t define his career. Former NHL player Tony Granato is coaching him well at the University of Wisconsin. The Canadiens seem to have turned things around when it comes to player development and a couple of seasons under Joël Bouchard with the Rocket might just be what the doctor ordered. Go Habs Go!