What the Puck: Habs bosses can't be liking Caufield's scoring struggles

Kudos to the Canadiens’ PR department. It’s like they’ve put a spell on everyone. The fact is there’s something up with Cole Caufield this season and it isn’t good.

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Cole Caufield needs to score more goals.

You can be assured that the 23-year-old winger’s major drop in goal production this season is a big concern for Canadiens management. That it’s not a bigger source of discussion in Habs hockey circles is just part of the strange CH universe of 2024 where it’s frowned upon to have a negative thought.

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You ask the kindly ol’ coach about a bad loss and he calls it a moral victory. You tell fans it’s a disappointment that the team isn’t making the playoffs and they scold you for being a negative Nelly and that we all must be happily onboard the rebuild train. I was talking to Habs supporters on Tuesday at McLean’s Pub about Caufield’s lack of scoring and with one exception, they all had a positive spin on it, insisting it was nothing to worry about.

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I honestly have to give kudos to the Canadiens’ PR department. It’s like they’ve put a spell on everyone. The fact is there’s something up with Caufield this season and it isn’t good. Last season, he had 26 goals in 46 games before his season was ended by a shoulder injury. That had him on pace for 46 goals.

The narrative was that Martin St. Louis was the perfect coach for Caufield, given that St. Louis himself was a diminutive forward with a magic scoring touch and clearly St. Louis is an inspiring leader. Caufield was going nowhere under previous head coach Dominique Ducharme. Ducharme had infamously benched Caufield for the first two games of the 2021 playoffs and in 30 games under Ducharme the following season, Caufield had only one goal!

He then went on to score 22 in the last 37 games of that season under the watch of St. Louis. Before this season, Caufield had scored 48 goals in 83 games since St. Louis took over as the Habs’ bench boss.

Caufield finally scored Tuesday against the Florida Panthers on a nice wraparound, but it was his first goal since March 16 and only his second in the last 20 games. With that goal Tuesday, Caufield has had just four goals in the team’s 25 games since the all-star break in early February.

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You want a crazy stat? Joel Armia, not exactly a noted sniper, scored his 14th goal on Tuesday and it was his 12th even-strength goal of the year. That places him third on the team, behind Suzuki (21) and Caufield (13). Yes, that’s right. Armia — who gets way less ice time than a top-line winger like Caufield and is not on the first wave of the power play — has just one less even-strength goal than Caufield.

The line from St. Louis and the rest of the faithful is that Caufield has improved in other areas of the game. It is true he has 35 assists so far this year, in 74 games. Last season he had 10 assists in 46 games. It’s also true that he’s more implicated in other aspects of the game. In the past, he was a bit uni-dimensional, essentially taking that one-timer from the faceoff circle.

But when Kent Hughes signed him to an eight-year, $62.8-million contract last June, he was spending all that dough for a guy who was meant to score at least 40 goals a year, not under 25.

So what’s up with Caufield? One theory is that it’s related to the shoulder surgery he underwent last season. Impossible to know really on that theory. Caufield himself said at the start of the season that it felt 100 per cent recovered.

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I see a player who doesn’t have the same confidence. I noticed a couple of times Saturday night versus the Hurricanes that Caufield would be in a perfect spot to take a shot and instead he’d pass the puck. It sometimes looks like he’s afraid to shoot. If you don’t shoot, then your shot doesn’t miss or hit the goalie in the bread basket. You don’t shoot because you don’t believe you can score.

Is the problem between his ears? Is he not focused enough on his game? Or is it just one down season?

When St. Louis talks of how Caufield and his teammates are playing better without the puck, it gives me a shudder, giving me an unwelcome flashback to the bad old days of Michel Therrien and Claude Julien when it was all about prioritizing playing well defensively and not encouraging creative offence. The exciting thing when Caufield first started playing with St. Louis as coach was the notion that St. Louis got Caufield and wanted him to be his own creative self on the ice.

In December, when Caufield was already faltering, St. Louis suggested the kid from Wisconsin had to mix it up. Said St. Louis:

“He’s gotta keep working on creating chances, and where are those chances? Rarely are they all from the outside, the chances are inside.”

Intriguing advice, but I’m not sure I see Caufield as the kind of guy who can set up shop in the blue paint the way Brendan Gallagher does. Whatever advice it takes, this has to be figured out because the whole plan is built around those three guys on the first line putting up elite numbers.

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