Caufield, college stars add ‘young energy’ to NHL playoffs

When the Montreal Canadiens were one goal away from being eliminated in the first round, and then again when they were one goal away from reaching the Stanley Cup semifinals, Cole Caufield set up the overtime winner each time.

Caufield was dominating college hockey just two months earlier and suddenly at age 20 had become a key player for the NHL’s most storied franchise. Along with Colorado forwards Alex Newhook and Sampo Ranta, and Florida goaltender Spencer Knight, Caufield’s success jumping right into the playoffs fresh off playing a full college season could inspire more teams to infuse fresh blood into their lineups at the most intense time of year.

“Any team that’s gone through a year is looking for some sort of spark, some sort of hope,” said Tony Granato, who coached Caufield at Wisconsin. “There is nothing better for a lineup than young energy entering the locker room and being able to add some speed and young legs into the lineup. Every team needs it.”

There’s no doubt the Canadiens needed Caufield. They are 7-1 since he joined their lineup. Montreal’s transformation was so remarkable even NFL All-Pro J.J. Watt noticed.

“Caufield has been an absolute playmaker since being added to the lineup,” Watt tweeted. “Great call by whoever suggested that.”

That would be coach Dominique Ducharme, whose trust of Caufield developed gradually. While Caufield’s 52 points in 31 games at Wisconsin propelled him to win the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s top player, those didn’t matter much when transitioning through a quick stint in the American Hockey League and joining the Canadiens in April.

Caufield put up five points in his first 10 NHL games and has four important assists in the playoffs, but the 5-foot-7 dynamo showing he could hang in the pros was about more than producing offensively. Former NHL scout Dave Starman said Caufield is more confident than ever handling the puck in his own zone, and the commitment to becoming an all-around player hasn’t gone unnoticed by his coaching staff.

“Any time we bring up a detail with or without the puck or we talk about something on his game or the team game, he really pays attention and you can see if he gets back in the same situation, he will react differently,” Ducharme said. “He’s really committed to his game and to the team, so putting him on the ice and seeing how he gets better on those little things every time he steps on, that’s how as a coach you gain more and more confidence.”

For all the confidence Caufield shows on the ice, he oozes humility at the same time — something Granato believes is crucial when joining an NHL team late in the season as a young player.

“You learn from each game, and you kind of grow and make adjustments along the way,” Caufield said. “But the guys have made me feel pretty comfortable, and the coaching staff has done a great job of welcoming me in and teaching me real fast how to play here.”

There’s no choice but to adjust quickly. Entering a playoff series midway through can resemble jumping onto a moving train and be difficult for even seasoned veterans.

Newhook and Ranta got that treatment for Colorado after coach Jared Bednar felt they deserved a spot in the lineup. Bednar said, “You never know until you try, and I don’t think you can be scared to try in a lot of situations.”

Montreal and Colorado aren’t the first to try this. The recent history of players jumping from college into the NHL playoffs includes Chris Kreider for the Rangers in 2012, Charlie McAvoy for the Bruins in 2017 and Cale Makar for the Avalanche in 2019.

“Cale and myself, I think we were put in the lineup for a reason to help the team win,” said Newhook, who credited Makar for easing his transition. “(Being) given the opportunity is obviously a huge part of it, and then what you do with it is another.”

Newhook’s goalie at Boston College, Knight, made the most of his opportunity when the Panthers gave him the nod midway through the first round against defending champion Tampa Bay. Knight stopped 56 of 60 Lightning shots, showing the same resolve in staving off elimination that he did in backstopping Caufield and the U.S. to a world junior championship last winter.

“He’s a guy, he moves past (struggles) really quickly,” said Boston College assistant Brooks Orpik, who won the Cup once with Pittsburgh and once with Washington. “He’s not cocky by any means, but he just has such tremendous confidence just because of how well he prepares and how well he takes care of himself.”

Minnesota coach Bob Motzko said Ranta took such good care of himself that jumping into the NHL wasn’t too big a leap. After coaching against Caufield and watching Newhook and Knight, he’s not surprised they could make an impact in the pros so soon.

“We are starting to get a lot of accolades now at the college game of what’s going on here and how these kids are developing,” Motzko said. “A lot of credit goes to the kids, too: How they train today and how they prepare and go into a season is completely different than it was a decade ago. They’re much more focused and their eye is on the ball to get to that level, and they’re ready for it when it happens.”

Starman, now a CBS Sports Network analyst, gives college coaches and programs credit for that development. He likens Caufield, Newhook, Ranta and Knight to the elite college quarterbacks who can play right away in the NFL.

“If these kids are coming out much more ready-made than they were before, that’s just a bonus to the NHL team,” Starman said. “If you don’t come into the league ready to play, it’s really hard to make it, so it’s a credit to these programs that are turning out players that are ready to step into the NHL and not only just take a spot in the lineup but actually do something with it.”

Getting that spot is half the challenge. Caufield going in meant Montreal taking Cup-winning 17-year veteran trade pickup Eric Staal out of the lineup.

“It’s the NHL and it’s the best league in the world and right now we cannot think about what this guy did two months ago,” Ducharme said. “It’s really right now what’s going on and who’s playing well.”

That’s certainly Caufield, who set up Nick Suzuki for the overtime goal that kept the Canadiens alive against Toronto and Tyler Toffoli for the other that eliminated Winnipeg and put them into the third round. The smiles on older players’ faces matched Caufield’s seemingly permanent grin in that moment and showed the value of adding fresh young talent when the games matter most.

“When a guy like Caufield can jump into the Montreal Canadiens lineup and add that type of energy to a team, Corey Perry gets better, Eric Staal gets better, Shea Weber gets better, Carey Price gets better because this young hungry kid’s flying around,” Granato said. “You can’t put a measuring stick upon actually what that means to a locker room.”

AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow contributed to this report.

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