Confidence is huge in pro-sports. Many have claimed over the years that success in professional hockey (amongst other sports) is 80 percent mental. When things are going well, players don’t need to think on the ice. They simply let their instinct take over, as playing is embedded in their memory from years of practice and repetition. When things aren’t going so well, the lack of confidence makes players think too much and try things they aren’t used to do, and start thinking too much.
After having a great start in the NHL, expectations where high on Cole Caufield. How many people handed him the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year before the puck was dropped in the first game? In fact, with the team going all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, the expectations weren’t to see the Canadiens have only nine wins at this stage of the season, that’s for sure.
Caufield scored one single goal in his first 30 games this season. For someone who’s best attribute to a team is scoring goals, the pressure was mounting on the young man to produce offensively. And as he struggled to find his game, the coach’s patience started running thin. And when a coach is fighting for his survival behind the bench, winning becomes the main goal.
They are many who claim today that “finally”, he gets a chance to play with Nick Suzuki. This is a gross misconception as Suzuki has been the principal center for Caufield at even strengths since the start of the season, and by a fair margin (33%).
Next, it’s Ryan Poehling (24.8%), with who he’s been matched with for the past few weeks and it’s with him that he started playing better, getting more chances. Also, when with Poehling, it wasn’t always on the fourth line either. Brendan Gallagher, Tyler Toffoli and Artturi Lehkonen all spent time on the other wing with the two young men. He has also spent time with others on offensive-minded lines as well. So before being demoted due to poor production, Caufield was on the top lines for quite some time.
Where Dominique Ducharme has failed and Martin St-Louis is succeeding, is on the total ice time, and situational ice time, with Caufield. Last night against the St. Louis Blues, the 21 year-old had a career high 21:04 of ice time. Of course, this was helped by the fact that the Canadiens benefited of five (yes, 5) power plays, on none of which they scored. Caufield saw 5:36 minutes of his total ice time with the man advantage last night. Also, at the end of the game, down by one goal and the goalie pulled, St-Louis trusted his young winger by having him on the ice. And the young American rewarded his coach by scoring the game-tying goal, sending the game to overtime. We know the rest…
If there’s one guy who is benefiting most from having Martin St-Louis behind the bench, it certainly appears to be Caufield. Both diminutive in stature, the new Canadiens’ coach was also an elite goals’ scorer in this league and he can share his experience with the talented young winger.
To be truthful, Caufield started playing better when he came back from his COVID stint where he was stuck skating in Wisconsin with Joel Armia, waiting to be allowed back in Canada. Ironically, Armia has been playing better since then too.
In his first game back on February 8th, Ducharme rewarded his young player by giving him 15:28 of ice time and Caufield managed four shots against the New Jersey Devils that night. But when he got the monkey off his back four games ago, by scoring his second goal of the season, the floodgates opened… as it’s often the case for talented goals’ scorers.
All that being said, let’s call a spade a spade. Caufield didn’t have a good season to his standards and it’s not all on coaching. It was the same coach who had him last season in his debuts, with similar linemates. But as mentioned before, it’s part of the progression of a young player. He will have more struggles down the road, guaranteed. Still, there’s a part of me who can’t help but wonder how Jesperi Kotkaniemi would be playing under Martin St-Louis…