MONTREAL — He thought he was just “OK.”
When we asked Cole Caufield, after his Montreal Canadiens lost 6-3 to the Arizona Coyotes, to assess his game on Tuesday — he scored two goals in eight seconds to tie Maurice “the Rocket” Richard in third place for the two fastest goals in Canadiens history and his team controlled 71.4 per cent of the shot attempts over his 11:39 at 5-on-5 — that’s what he said.
“I thought I was OK.”
It was one of Caufield’s most mature moments in his short NHL career. The 21-year-old burst onto the NHL scene with a Hobey Baker Award practically in hand, with a well-justified confidence that bordered on cockiness and a knack for scoring big goals on big occasions. He rose above the hype with the performance he authored to help the Canadiens reach the 2021 Stanley Cup Final — posting four goals and 12 points in 20 games and establishing himself as a star in the making.
Then this year began with Caufield putting up just one goal and eight points over his first 30 games of the season. He was humbled.
But even if the five-foot-seven Wisconsin native didn’t get taller from that experience, he still grew.
The goals he scored against the Coyotes were his ninth and 10th — and the 18th and 19th points — he’s registered in 15 games since Martin St. Louis took over as head coach, and those goals and points are samples of his growth.
But another sample is Caufield saying after the loss to the Coyotes: “Obviously, you can get better every game.”
The truth is Caufield was accurate in his assessment.
He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t quite at the same level we saw him at over his previous 14 games. He made an ill-advised pass to Alex Romanov, which led to a Lawson Crouse breakaway goal that proved to be the game winner with 11 seconds left in the first period, and he got rinsed in his own end on a couple of shifts that he probably won’t need to review on video to remind himself of what happened.
There’s a lot to like about Caufield holding himself accountable for that after the game. And doing that — even when you’re the main reason your team had a chance to come back in a game that appeared out of reach — is one of the best things a young player can do to accelerate his own development.
“He’s a competitor, he sees more than just the goals,” said Paul Byron. “A lot of players — it’s easy to focus on points and think you’re just doing a good job, but there’s a lot of areas of the game that you can continue to work on. I think it shows his commitment, his drive and his passion to get better every day.
“And to have that kind of self-awareness to critique his game like that is only going to make him better each day. It’s good to see a good kid who maybe would score a couple of goals and feel good about himself and not care too much — that’s not Cole. He really cares about the details, winning games and making sure he’s good for 60 minutes. As he gets older, if he keeps that mindset, there’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to be that player for us.”
Not that we’re suggesting Caufield needs to tone down his confidence to continue being the player everyone expected he’d be after he burned up Auston Matthews’ goal-scoring record with the United States National Development Team, got himself drafted 15th overall in 2019, ripped it up with the Wisconsin Badgers and made his impressive NHL debut.
We know that confidence is at the heart of what makes Caufield special.
So does Brendan Gallagher, who emphasized that after this game.
“I think he’s been able to learn what makes him a successful player — he has to have that little bit of swagger,” said Gallagher. “I think it’s hard to describe — he’s dancing around the locker room, he’s having fun, and we love to see that. He’s being himself. He has to come to the rink with that swagger he’s had his entire life.
“I think when he was struggling, he probably didn’t feel that way. He probably felt like he probably couldn’t do anything right. Now he feels like he’s a player we rely on, and that’s important throughout his career to remember when you go through those tough times. And it’ll happen again, he’s going to play in this league for a long time and you go through droughts, and you go through slumps. It’s important to be able to look back at what you’re doing when you’re playing well and not forget about it. For him, we rely on him incredibly. He’s a huge player for us, and he understands that, and he brings it every night.”
But it’s a big step for Caufield to be able to recognize when he hasn’t brought it for the whole night, and it’s a sign of progress that he’s already doing it.
Alex Romanov taking on a bigger role
Regarding the growth of Montreal’s key young players, the 22-year-old Romanov is making more strides.
In Tuesday’s game, he took the fifth-most strides he has in an NHL game — skating 23:58 in 22 shifts. No Canadien played more against Arizona.
How did Romanov handle it? He had three shots on net, eight attempts, one hit and four blocked shots. In his 20:43 at 5-on-5, the Canadiens had 31 shot attempts to Arizona’s eight.
Of course, Romanov was put in that position to begin with because his regular partner, Ben Chiarot was held out of Tuesday’s game by management because he’ll be traded between now and the March 21 NHL trade deadline. And he also took on as much because Joel Edmundson was playing just his second game after battling a season-long back injury.
Romanov’s role is going to increase from here to the end of the season, and that should only help him become the player the Canadiens need him to be as early as next season.
“I think the more he gets used to it the better he’ll continue to play,” said St. Louis. “When you take a key guy like that out of the lineup like that in Benny, it gives other guys opportunity. And that’s the thing about this game — whether it’s injuries or circumstances that we’re in — is other guys are getting opportunities. And that’s what Romy’s getting right now.”
It’s coming at the right time, as the Canadiens blue line takes on a different complexion over the coming months and Romanov is expected to reach the next phase of his development in short order.