Cole Caufield navigating NHL ups and downs with help from Jack Hughes

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Cole Caufield‘s first NHL season raised the expectations for what he could deliver for the Canadiens. After a 10-game stint at the end of the regular season, he scored four times and recorded 12 points in Montreal’s run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Known for his shot, it wasn’t a wild thought to project Caufield to reach 20 goals in 2021-22, his first full NHL season. He was a trendy Calder Trophy pick, but the 21-year-old’s rookie year has been a bumpy one. After a goalless October, he was sent to the AHL where he tallied two goals and five points in six games with Laval.

It’s not been a smooth ride since Caufield was recalled to Montreal in mid-November. One goal in 16 games, three Canadiens wins, and 10 COVID-19 postponements.

If anything, Caufield can take this season as a learning experience.

“You don’t really want it too easy all the time,” he said on Monday. “I think this is a year that I can learn from. It will be huge for me later down in my career to go through this and deal with that adversity so you can go back on it and learn from these things and kind of be a leader down in the future for those younger guys, too, to see what you’ve been through and kind of take it day-by-day from that aspect of things and kind of just stay level-headed.”

Advice from a friend

To see how a difficult start to a career can be turned it around, Caufield only needed to look at his old USA Hockey National Team Development Program teammate in Jack Hughes.

Caufield and Hughes were with the USNTDP for two seasons where the pair dominated on a line together in 2018-19 with a combined 212 points. Their NHL draft stocks rose with Hughes ending up No. 1 overall to the Devils and Caufield going No. 15 to the Canadiens.

Hughes’ rookie season was difficult as well. He scored seven goals and registered 21 points in 61 games. It was a difficult transition for the forward, who told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan, “You’re the first overall pick and then you’re in the NHL. You’ve got [Connor] McDavid one night, then [Brad] Marchand the next night then [Sidney] Crosby the next night.”

Like Caufield, Hughes dealt with adversity and improved his game and got stronger. He posted 31 points in 56 games last season and is a point-per-game player this year with nine goals and 20 points in 19 games.

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It’s no surprise, then, that Caufield reached out to Hughes to chat about navigating the early years of a promising NHL career.

“Jack and I talk a lot about that stuff particularly, and obviously you can see how his first year went and how this year has gone,” Caufield said. “He’s a totally different player. It’s something we take very seriously is how well we play each night, but for us it’s just sticking to what works and playing the game the right way. And you know at a certain time it’s going to give you some bounces at some point, but you’ve just got to stay levelheaded and play hockey the right way.

“You can’t really cheat the game too much because you’re not going to get things going your way, so I think that’s just kind of how my mindset’s been right now. At a certain point, it’s going to come, but you’ve just got to keep your head down and keep working.”

Keeping confident

One thing neither Caufield or Hughes has experienced is playing an 82-game NHL schedule. Hughes missed a month after suffering a shoulder injury in October, but has stayed healthy. Caufield has been consistent presence in the Canadiens’ lineup since his recall, but COVID-19 postponements have interrupted any chance to work on consistency.

There’s no easy path to NHL success, which Caufield is discovering. Despite a difficult start, there’s still plenty of time for improvement. As he continues finding his path in the league, one of the most important aspects of development is that his confidence has not waned.

“I know what I can do on the ice, and it’s just a matter of doing it consistently every night,” Caufield said. “I think that’s something as a young player that you learn from each night. Eighty-two games is a long season, so you’re going to have ups and downs. But the more you can stay confident and consistent with your game, I think that’s when you’re going to take strides in your game.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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