Cole Caufield is a good hockey player. Maybe, just maybe, he needed the right situation to prove that.
With a goal and an assist against Toronto, Caufield has eight points in his last six games. Can you guess what changed with the Montreal Canadiens six games ago?
Enter interim coach Martin St. Louis.
If anyone was going to understand the struggles Caufield was going through, it was a fellow laterally challenged goal-scorer. During St. Louis' career, which spanned 16 years with a Stanley Cup and over 1,000 points, the narrative was always about how he was able to prove people wrong at the small size of 5-foot-8. He was never afraid of any matchup and he became one of the best players in the NHL before too long.
So getting him to coach Caufield, a 5-foot-9 goal-scorer in the midst of a rough rookie season, was a match made in heaven.
Caufield's season has been a mixed bag. The Canadiens sent him to the AHL to play for the Laval Rocket after recording just one assist in six 10 games to open the season. Caufield helped Laval to a 3-3 record before getting called up and getting dumped back into the bottom six.
Caufield's play improved a bit by mid-November, recording five points in his next eight games, only to grab one assist in the next nine games. So, clearly, the confidence still wasn't there. But that changed after Martin St. Louis entered the picture. Caufield scored against Washington in St. Louis' debut with the club, and has now scored in five of the past six games, with seven points total in that span. Caufield's two-goal night against the St. Louis Blues saw him play a season-high 21:04 in what was ultimately his best performance of the season.
Caufield's ice time since Feb. 10 of 17:02 is second among forwards on Montreal in that span, with Nick Suzuki sitting atop with 21:28. In Caufield's case, it's a big jump from his 14:42 TOI that put him 11th among all Canadiens forwards and ninth among forwards with at least 25 games played this season. Part of that boost was due to Montreal's COVID-19 cases, with Caufield playing throughout the departures.
It's clear that St. Louis understands the struggles that Caufield has faced already in his career and the talent that he brings. Caufield had 12 points in 20 playoff games as a rookie after winning the Hobey Baker Award as the top NCAA collegiate player as a sophomore. The talent? Unquestioned.
But Caufield just turned 21 in January. He's still quite young and mistakes are common. Instead of penalizing him for those mistakes, St. Louis is embracing him because he knows the positives outweigh the negatives. Let's not forget former coach Dom Ducharme elected to sit Caufield to start the playoffs last year despite a good end-of-season run with the team. Once he finally made it into the lineup full-time, he made it impossible to take him out.
That seemed to change early on this season, and instead of giving Caufield chances to grow as an NHLer, he sat in the bottom-six of the 32nd-place team. For a young player, that can be demoralizing, and it doesn't do a whole lot for development. Caufield is a goal-scorer; he needs to be in a goal-scoring situation, and it's not like the Canadiens have an over-subscribed offense to work with.
St. Louis appreciates the challenges Caufield has gone through and knows the talent he brings to the table. Caufield is an incredible shooter, can move the puck well, and seems to get along with just about anyone he plays with. He's part of Montreal's future, and after missteps with Alex Galcehnyuk and Jesperi Kotkaniemi in recent years, the Canadiens can't screw this one up.
It's almost like the Canadiens hired St. Louis to specifically deal with Caufield - a smaller player that had a promising career before turning pro, only to struggle out of the gate. For as good as St. Louis was, it took him around five years to become the player that later put him in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Caufield cites St. Louis as an influence in his game, so if he's going to listen and learn from anyone, it's the player who dealt with all the same things as one of the smallest goal-scorers in the league.