Yeah, so it turns out the Movember initiative for men’s health was not required to commission a Brink’s truck to pick up all the money Cole Caufield raised, after all. But it’s not as though he didn’t try.
Caufield actually started growing the thing in October, but November produced nothing more than a pathetic little duster on his upper lip and a stretch where he scored only one goal in seven games, so he shaved it off. People apparently noticed.
Wisconsin coach Tony Granato noted that if you combined the facial hair Caufield and the four other Badger freshmen grew in November, you wouldn’t have enough for one fully formed ’stache. “Obviously, it wasn’t doing the job,” Caufield said, “so it had to go. I’ve got a lot of work to do from now until next November for sure.”
So instead of growing hair, Caufield will have to be content with making the hair on the back of necks stand up. His November dry spell notwithstanding, he’s that good at scoring goals. And when the United States embarks on a quest for its first gold medal in three years and its fifth straight medal of any color at the world juniors, it will do so relying heavily on Caufield’s uncanny ability to transfer the puck from the blade of his stick to the back of the net.
His release is lethal and legendary, as is his talent for finding the scoring areas and being able to endure the punishment it requires to take up residence there. He scores on one-timers. He scores on rebounds. He scores off the rush. He pulls the puck in different directions at full speed and shoots quickly and accurately. He’s also a very good skater and deceptive playmaker.
In short, he might not be multi-dimensional, but he is otherworldly at the game’s most important dimension. “I think of Teemu Selanne, I think of Brett Hull, I think of Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk, guys who, if the puck is around them, they think they’re scoring,” Granato said. “And when Cole gets the puck, he thinks he’s scoring. He has the mentality of a great goal-scorer. Luc Robitaille is an example. ‘Give me the puck around the net, and I’ll put it in there.’ ”
Caufield did just that with alarming regularity for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program the past two seasons. Riding shotgun for first overall pick Jack Hughes last season, Caufield scored a record 72 times for the under-18 team and 54 for the under-17 and under-18 teams in 2017-18 for a program-record total of 126. (That’s precisely the same number of career goals his father, Paul, scored at Wisconsin Stevens-Point, where he won three Div. III national titles. Cool, eh?)
Just so you know, that’s 22 more than Phil Kessel scored in two years with the program, 42 more than Patrick Kane, 47 more than Auston Matthews and 59 more than Jack Eichel. Unlike those guys, Caufield tumbled out of the top 10 of the 2019 draft, going 15th to Montreal. The reason? He’s listed at just 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds, and size bias is still a thing at the draft. But Caufield can only control what he does on the ice, and that’s score goals better than any teenager on the planet.
For all those goals last season, Caufield could not get one when he needed it most. The under-18 program with USA Hockey builds all season to play in, and often win, the world under-18s. And Caufield did his part in 2019, scoring 14 goals and 18 points in seven games en route to being named tournament MVP. Among those goals were the only two USA scored in the semifinal against Russia.
When Cole gets the puck, he thinks he’s scoring. He has the mentality of a great goal-scorer
– Tony Granato, Wisconsin coach
But with the score tied 2-2, Caufield lost the puck on his shootout attempt, and the Americans lost. The WJC represents a chance to take care of unfinished business with Team USA. “It’s been in my head ever since that day,” Caufield said. “It’s something I think about a lot. There are a lot of guys who have played together before who will be on this team, and I think that gives us an advantage. There are no excuses this year. We’ve got a job to do, and we have a lot of guys in the room who can do it.”
Caufield’s bloodlines – in addition to his father’s prowess, his Canadian-born grandfather also played pro hockey before settling in Milwaukee – suggest scoring comes naturally to him. There is little doubt he has a sixth sense that most players don’t have and can find scoring areas that elude others, but that doesn’t mean he does not work at his craft. Caufield studies other shooters meticulously and works on improving his offensive acumen. “He puts himself in good areas, and that’s what I find so impressive,” said Team USA coach Scott Sandelin, who also patrols the bench for NCAA champion Minnesota-Duluth. “He finds those little quiet areas, and that’s a gift. He loves coming to the rink, he loves to play, and he loves to score. He has a drive to score and a drive to get better.”
This season started in much the same manner for Caufield at Wisconsin, with him scoring two goals in each of his first three career college games. But after that, while he continued to do most things right in all areas of the ice, for the first time in his career, he wasn’t filling the net.
That wasn’t ideal for him or the Badgers, but an important part of a player’s development is dealing with those bumps in the road and making contributions even if they’re not showing up on the stats sheet. The players are bigger and better and older in college than they were before, and that chasm will be even wider once Caufield turns pro, almost certainly by next season. “I don’t think the quick start offensively was a surprise to anybody,” Granato said. “The last few games where he wasn’t scoring, he probably had more chances, and more pucks that looked like they were going in the net just didn’t go in for him. In our first 14 games, he probably hit 25 posts. His pinpoint shooting accuracy was a little off.”
Almost everyone in the hockey world assumes that the day Wisconsin’s season ends, Caufield will skate off the ice, hit the showers, change into his clothes and take the next flight to Montreal. He has made no secret he wants to be playing in the NHL as soon as possible.
Depending on where they are in the playoff race, the Canadiens could bring him in the way they did with Ryan Poehling last season or could simply wait until next season for Caufield to start his pro career. Much will depend on when Wisconsin’s season ends in a tough Big Ten conference and whether the Badgers reach the Frozen Four regionals. They were the 19th-ranked team in the nation in late November.
For now, Caufield is not worrying about those things. He’s more consumed with continuing to make progress at Wisconsin and helping his country win a WJC title. “It’s a goal of mine to play in the NHL as soon as possible,” Caufield said. “But I want to feel comfortable. I want to feel ready to go in and play. I don’t want to just be a part of it. I want to make an impact.”