A few summers ago, more than half the NHL made the mistake of passing on Alex DeBrincat in the 2016 Entry Draft. The right winger was coming off of back-to-back 50 goal seasons for the Erie Otters in the OHL and had proven to be one of the best goal scorers in the class. Despite his ability to do the most important thing in hockey - put the puck in the net - DeBrincat fell to 39th overall, and there has been no other reason to that drop other than the fact that he stands 5’7” tall. After being drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round, DeBrincat went on to score 65 goals in only 63 games in his final OHL season before making the jump to the NHL where he is about to become a 40-goal scorer at the ripe old age of 21.
Three years later, we’re going to get the opportunity to see which teams have learned to move past their size bias thanks to Cole Caufield - the 5’7” right winger that is currently setting records for the USNTDP.
The comparison to DeBrincat is an easy one - but it’s apt.
They’re both have elite shots, they both score better than almost everyone else in their draft class and they’ll both end up being drafted later than they should simply because of their height. The amazing part is that while the 21-year-old is is putting up nearly point per game in the NHL this season, Caufield has begun to show that he is better than DeBrincat was at the same age.
So far this season, Caufield is scoring at more than a goal per game pace. Not only is he about to break the record for goals in a season set by Auston Matthews back in 2015, but he’s on the verge of passing Phil Kessel as the NTDP’s all time leading goal scorer.
Concerns about Caufield’s size are logical. The NHL is filled with bigger, stronger players that won’t allow him as much space as he has now, but watching him play, you see that he’s learned ways around his limitations. Caufield is very strong on his feet and does a good job of protecting the puck. His lower body strength allows him to take on physical play and negate issues with his height.
Caufield’s skating is another strength that more than compensates for his lack of size. He’s agile and always keeps his feet moving to find the open space on the ice - both with and without the puck. Combine that with his great hands and he’s shown flashes of incredibly dynamic playmaking skills.
Cole Caufield absolutely snipes Jesper Wallstedt in this morning’s #5NationsU18 play. Caufield has a shot like nobody else in this #2019NHLDraft class. Don’t be surprised if he’s in my top 10 in my February draft rankings. pic.twitter.com/2ehFfJJsCU— TPEHockey (@TPEHOCKEY) February 6, 2019
Without a doubt though, Caufield’s shot - and more specifically his release - is the most impressive part of game. His wrister would be among the upper echelon in the NHL today. It’s quick, elusive and Caufield has the ability to throw it at a goalie at multiple speeds.
What makes it most impressive is that he doesn’t need a lot of space to get it off. Caufield can get the puck from the ice to the crossbar as quickly as nearly anyone in the world.
He’s more than a lethal wrist shot. Caufield has great touch both on the break and in close to the net. Many players don’t have the decision making capabilities beyond “see net, shoot puck”. Caufield has the ability to rip an elite wrist shot but he’s also got the awareness to know when he should pull back and look for more space, or just float the puck up over a goaltender’s shoulder.
Caufield plays with Jack Hughes, so some will downplay his offensive production as a byproduct of playing with a superstar center. While the two do have some tremendous chemistry, Caufield’s play away from Hughes has been just as impressive. He has shown the ability to create offense on his own and has a dynamic element to his game that you don’t see from other high-end snipers in the draft class like Arthur Kaliyev. Caufield will always be better with a true playmaking center - but that’s the case for goal scoring wingers at every level.
Caufield has committed to return to his home state to play for the University of Wisconsin next season. Not only will he and current U18 teammate Alex Turcotte bring a much needed boost to the Badger offsense, but for the first time, Caufield is going to look like a giant on the ice playing with the team’s current leading scorer: 5'3" tall Sean Dhooghe (who regularly embarrasses opponents that are a foot taller than him).
Caufield has a long way to go before he is NHL read. He has to improve his game on the defensive side of the puck and a two years in an NCAA weight room will do wonders for him. That said, he is absolutely one of the best 20 prospects in the 2019 draft class and should be selected by a lottery team that knows patience will pay off in spades.
Many scouts might look at spending a first-round pick on Caufield as a big risk. Any pick outside of the first few have risk, especially in a year like this where the class is very top heavy. If you’re going to take a risk, you can do a lot worse than investing in the US National Jr. team’s all time leading goal scorer.
There are a few teams that have multiple first round picks this June. Maybe the fact that it’ll be their second pick would put a team at ease when it comes to selecting Caufield. If the ping pong balls fall the right way, there are a couple lottery teams that could end up with Jack Hughes and the ability to draft his elite right winger a handful of picks later. That would definitely be hard to pass up.
Alex DeBrincat has proven that a lack size doesn’t negate an elite ability to put the puck in the net. Cole Caufield should be selected in the top-15, let’s see how many teams have truly learned the lesson.