For Canadiens’ Cole Caufield, goal locations might be bigger than goal totals

At the University of Wisconsin, Cole Caufield had a funny ritual. In warmups, in practice, whenever he would shoot on his own goalie and not score, he would gather the puck and make sure to put it in the net. It was important to him to see the puck enter the net.

It has remained important to him in the NHL, but this season has taught him something. The goals have not come as frequently as he’s used to because he is focused on other aspects of his game, becoming a more complete player and helping the Montreal Canadiens win games even if he isn’t scoring.

It has given Caufield the ability to see himself as more than just a goal scorer and, in a way, redefine how he sees himself as a hockey player.

“It’s not the end of the world to me anymore,” Caufield said Tuesday morning. “I don’t want to say I’m OK with not scoring, but I can look back after a game and not see my name on the scoresheet and still think I had a good game.”

It’s an important development because goals are hard to come by in the NHL, even for Caufield. He needs to see ways he can impact the game beyond goals and he has. For the future, this is valuable.

But Caufield still wants to score.

When asked Tuesday morning, at which point he had a four-game goal streak going, about the locations of those goals and whether that made him happy, Caufield smiled.

“The paint?” he asked. “I think I’ve got to get in there more!”

And he laughed.

Scoring goals still makes Caufield happiest despite him having a broader view of his game, but his ability to get on the inside and convert from scoring areas has fallen under the radar this season. It was a talking point a few months ago, but Caufield has taken it to heart, with the urging of his coach, Martin St. Louis, who knows that a small frame doesn’t prevent someone from getting into those areas of the ice where goals are more common.

Caufield’s four-game goal streak came on a wraparound against the Florida Panthers, a one-timer from the low slot against the Tampa Bay Lightning, another from the low slot against the Toronto Maple Leafs and finally from behind the net against the New York Rangers. All within a few feet of the net.

“I feel like sometimes I’m in the spots and maybe don’t get the look I want, but at the end of the day it’s all about timing, getting there in the right spot and getting inside position on guys,” Caufield said. “I like to score from anywhere, I’ve just got to start consistently scoring in the paint a little bit more, around the net. As much as I can get there on the inside, good things will happen.”

In college and even in the NHL before this season, Caufield was a master at finding space to let go of his lethal shot. He would hide behind the net, get lost in the offensive zone to become a target for his linemates to unleash a one-timer from space. It was once the case that Caufield’s game without the puck was his greatest strength, his ability to find that space to score goals while his linemates worked the puck before feeding him.

That’s what’s so striking about St. Louis’ assessment of the main area where they’ve helped Caufield. It was his play without the puck.

“You can’t just go where you want to go. You’ve got to go where the game is asking you to go based on where your teammates are, where your opponents are, all that is you’ve got to get calculated,” St. Louis said. “And again, we’ve helped Cole to play without the puck. When he has the puck, I think we’ve been able to help him out with the puck because we coach the other four, so Cole knows where his outs are going to be. But when he’s the other four – you’re going to be the other four way more than you’re going to be the one with the puck in this game – so when you’re the other four, I think we’ve helped him out in terms of where he should be based on where the other three are.”

From Caufield’s perspective, it is all a matter of timing. But that’s always been his way, properly timing when he would arrive in space. It’s just that in the NHL, figuring out that timing is more of a process because space is so fickle and sparse.

“You can see my routes in the offensive zone, sometimes maybe staying along the dot lane or just outside of it, you might be able to get the puck, but nothing really dangerous comes from that,” he said. “It’s all about balance in the offensive zone for me and timing it to get on the inside as much as possible.

“Obviously Marty’s got a point there, and I think we should talk about it more!”

Then, he laughed again. Because he’s figured something out here that will help him score goals in this league in the future. Caufield has 24 goals in 78 games this season, whereas he had 26 goals in 46 games last season. The rate is drastically different, but the total is not.

According to NHL Edge data, Caufield scored 11 of his 26 goals last season from around the net.

This season, that number is 17, including the bank shot off Igor Shesterkin from behind the net at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night.

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So, last season, 42.3 percent of Caufield’s goals came from these dangerous areas around the net, whereas this season that number is 70.8 percent.

But when you look at what Caufield is talking about, his routes in the offensive zone, it becomes clear his sense of timing of when to arrive in those areas has improved massively this season. A goal St. Louis referenced Tuesday morning as an example of the value of the one-timer also serves as an example of the value of routes and timing.

Again, it is not good enough for Caufield to simply hide and pounce anymore. He needs to be active when he doesn’t have the puck.

Here is the goal.

But it is worth looking at what Caufield did to get into that space to convert to feed from Nick Suzuki. He didn’t rush into that space, he waited for the perfect time to do it.

It is no longer enough for Caufield to simply get lost in coverage as he did in college. That was a passive way to get open, whereas he is now actively getting open and doing so in much more dangerous areas of the ice than he was before. And while a higher percentage of his goals are coming from high-danger areas of the ice, he is also unleashing more shots from those areas because he is understanding the ebbs and flows of the NHL game better than he was before.

Caufield has improved in numerous ways this season, which has led to a more complete game. He wins back more pucks, he forechecks better, he defends in his own end better. That’s why Caufield can look at a scoresheet after a game, not see his name, and feel fine.

St. Louis has often said he won’t make Caufield a better goal scorer, but that might not be true. Caufield’s improved efficiency in the scoring areas of the ice, and his improved strategy in getting there, will make him a better and more sustainable goal scorer at this level.

“It wouldn’t change what I think about his season, but for the player, to get rewarded with his commitment to the things we’ve been talking about, to get rewarded in that part of the game, I’m really happy for him,” St. Louis said. “I think it’s great for his confidence. But if you look at Cole and take a 10,000-foot view of Cole’s season, it’s been really, really good.

“And I know he’s had to answer questions about his goal scoring, but he stayed the course with what we were asking him to do, and he’s developed into a complete player.”

Caufield has also developed into a more complete goal scorer.

(Photo of Cole Caufield: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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