Canadiens’ Caufield finding offensive touch again under Martin St. Louis

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Cole Caufield’s face said everything.

It was a power play goal that cut the Capitals’ lead to 4-2 — a game that Montreal would end up losing. But you could see the relief within Caufield now that his 18-game goal drought, which dated back to Nov. 26, was over.

That Feb. 10 goal in Martin St. Louis’ first game as interim Canadiens head coach was the start of this current scoring tear for Caufield, which has seen him net five goals and eight points in six games.

Following Monday’s 5-2 win over the Maple Leafs, the Canadiens find themselves winners of three straight, something they haven’t done since sweeping the Jets in the Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In fact, that series was the last time Montreal won consecutive games, period.

Things are improving for Les Habitants right now, and that was almost expected. Many teams get that “new coach bounce” when a different voice arrives behind the bench. But for Caufield, it may have been a lifeline during a season where the preseason Calder Trophy candidate struggled, dealt with COVID-19, and spent time with AHL Laval.

Caufield idolized St. Louis and wore No. 26 as a youth player to honor him. They’re also both smaller players and have had to continually prove themselves. Caufield lit it up offensively for the U.S. National Team Development Program and then at the University of Wisconsin before waiting until No. 15 for Montreal to draft him in 2019. St. Louis famously went undrafted out of the University of Vermont, got cut after two seasons with the Flames and went on to have a Hall of Fame career, mostly with the Lightning.

Increase opportunity

St. Louis has seen the potential that lies within Caufield and is allowing him to flourish. After averaging 14:42 of ice time in 30 games under Dominique Ducharme, Caufield has played 16:49 a night in six games since St. Louis took over, including 32 more seconds on average of power play time. His eight points under St. Louis matches what he recorded while Ducharme was in charge this season.

“I think he trusts me,” Caufield of St. Louis said after scoring a goal and assisting on two others in Monday’s game. “He’s putting me out there in situations to succeed and I’m playing with two great players too so that helps. He trusts my game and I think that’s the biggest part for me. I just gotta keep playing the right way and it’ll keep going like that.”

St. Louis wanted to spark some of his key offensive players who were struggling, so he put Caufield with Josh Anderson and Nick Suzuki — an important trio moving forward for the franchise. So far they’ve clicked, a vital development since the coaching change.

Anderson’s game is much different than Caufield’s and Suzuki’s. He can drive to the net in a north-south style, while the other two create scoring chances with their movements in the offensive zone.

“With all the backpressure that there is these days, it’s hard to keep playing fast all the time and not trying to slow up for anything,” Caufield said. “So just kind of keeping the puck moving forward and timing yourself to be in the right spot for support, and then always be moving around the zone so you can find yourself open in more areas.”

“It’s important that these guys know that someone is looking out for them to not get manhandled on the ice,” St. Louis said. “What I like about Andy is his speed, obviously his size, but he can play the game too. It’s not just about adding size, you have to add someone who can complement them and someone that can stop the play.”

Playing without the puck

One of St. Louis’ coaching philosophies is the importance of your play without the puck. Find the spot on the ice where you’ll create a scoring opportunity, and that will lead to more touches of the puck. The way Suzuki and Caufield can move in the offensive zone plays into that.

“It’s a big key to the game,” Caufield said. “If you look at the stats and stuff, you don’t have the puck for a lot of the time you’re on the ice. So if you can be successful without the puck, stay over top of guys, be in the right position, find yourself at the right time in the right spot, I think that’s when you get more touches. I think that’s what he’s going to preach going forward, the better you play without the puck, the more touches you’ll get.”

When young players are finding their way in the NHL, it can be hard to develop if they’re constantly scared to make mistakes. Will I see my ice time cut? Am I going back to the AHL? Those are all thoughts when players hit a wall and the good times come to a halt. It was a perfect start for Caufield’s NHL career when he joined the Canadiens after leaving Wisconsin last April. He scored four times in his first 10 games and then picked up four goals and 12 points during their run to the Stanley Cup Final. But it took Caufield 13 games to get his first goal of this season and then another 18 to get his second — the power play tally against Washington.

The errors will happen. When you’re a skilled player, the more high-risk plays you attempt, the more mistakes you’ll make. But the payoff is worth it and will outweigh the turnovers that come over time.

St. Louis is allowing Caufield to play his game, mistakes and all, because in the end, the Canadiens will reap the benefits.

“It’s just to reset his mental side,” St. Louis said. “He’s playing free. He makes mistakes on the ice, of course. I also made mistakes on the ice. But he does many more good things than mistakes, so as a coach, you have to live with the mistakes as long as the good things are there.”

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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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