Former Badger Caufield, college stars add 'young energy' to NHL playoffs

By Stephen Whyno
Associated Press
View Comments

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.

FILE - In this May 1, 2021, file photo, Montreal Canadiens' Cole Caufield (22) celebrates with teammate Jake Evans after scoring against the Ottawa Senators during overtime of an NHL hockey game in Montreal.

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 subscribers: Stanley Cup semifinals preview: 'Warrior' Alec Martinez spurring another potential title run

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.”

For subscribers: Ex-Wing Anthony Mantha disappointed by his playoff debut in Washington

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."

Rask needs hip surgery, wants to return to Bruins in 2022

Boston — Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask will have surgery to repair a previously undisclosed torn labrum in his hip, he said Friday, two days after the team was eliminated from the playoffs by the New York Islanders.

Rask, who is eligible to become a free agent, said he hopes to re-sign with the Bruins and be ready to return in January or February.

“I’m not going to play for anyone else than the Bruins. This is our home,” he said. “At this point of my life and my career, I don’t see any reason to go anywhere else, especially with the health I’m looking at now and a recovery time of five or six months. Hopefully it works out that I recover well and we can talk about contracts when the time is right for that.”

Rask played in only 24 games during the regular season as the team managed his workload. He missed three weeks in March and April but said that was because his back seized up when he was compensating for the hip injury.

“It’s hard, but it never got to a point where I couldn’t play,” Rask said on Friday during the team’s exit interviews. “Obviously, it’s not easy to play with a labral tear as a goalie, but ... I think our training staff did a great job maintaining it and keeping me out there.”

Forward David Krejci is also a free agent after playing his entire career in Boston.

“It’s not about money. I guess that’s all I can tell you. My next deal is not going to be based on money,” he said, adding: “I just can’t see myself playing for a different team.”

Rask, 34, said he didn’t blame the injury for the team’s early exit. He allowed 10 goals in eight periods over the last three games, all losses, including Game 5 when he was pulled during the second break after giving up four goals.

“I can’t stand here and say, ‘It was because of my hip, I couldn’t play at my level.’ I felt like I played at a very good level,’” he said. “I thought everybody should be proud of themselves and the way we battled.”

Although he put no limits on how long he would play if his recovery goes well, Rask said he wasn’t counting on it.

“It could also go the other way. Maybe I don’t recover that well and maybe I just can’t play anymore,” he said. “Who knows?”

Rask also said he would help mentor Jeremy Swayman if he is able.

“Any way I can be helpful for these young guys, I want to do it,” he said. . Who knows what the goaltending situation is going to look like when the season starts? I’m definitely up for helping out in any shape or form I can.”

Also Friday, defenseman Kevan Miller said he was ready to return for Game 7 against the Islanders if the Bruins had made it that far. Miller missed all of the 2019-20 season with a knee injury and appeared in 15 games this year before a setback cost him 20 games.

He sustained a concussion in Game 4 of the first round against the Washington Capitals and had not played since.

“You want to be out there,” Miller said. “I was super close to being back, most likely would have played in Game 7. That it just makes it even worse, to be honest with you. It’s not good.”

Larsen gets first NHL head-coaching job with Blue Jackets

When Brad Larsen went from old player to young coach and earning an NHL head job became a goal, he spent time on a hockey database website looking up the paths of those who came before him.

Larsen found many of the most successful coaches took their time and embraced patience.

“My vision was, I’m not in a rush to be a head coach,” Larsen said. “I want to do it right.”

After a decade in coaching, including the past seven years as a Columbus assistant, Larsen was introduced Friday as the Blue Jackets’ new coach. He and team brass agreed that even with connections to the previous two coaching staffs, Larsen earned the opportunity to be the new voice the organization covets to become a contender again.

“There’s that patient endurance that goes into something like that,” Larsen said at his introductory news conference in Columbus. “I’m going to learn more now. I’m going to make mistakes — I promise you — but that’s part of the process.”

Larsen quickly became the top choice to succeed John Tortorella, the Stanley Cup-winning coach who parted ways with the Blue Jackets with his contract expiring. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen said Larsen was one of the first candidates interviewed for the job and others couldn’t surpass the “Lars Bar” set by the 43-year-old homegrown coach.

“It makes me very proud to promote Brad to our head coach because he’s earned it,” Kekalainen said. “It’s going to be a fresh, new voice for us.”

At the very least it’s a fresh perspective from a coach who worked under Tortorella and Todd Richards since 2014 and before that coached the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Springfield, Massachusetts. Larsen understands the questions about how an organizational mainstay can be a new voice but insists he’ll show that in his coaching.

Whereas Tortorella was gruff, often short and sometimes unfiltered, Larsen said he’s firm but fair and believes in accountability and honesty, much like his old boss.

“I’m my own man,” Larsen said. “I probably will handle things differently than Torts just because that’s who I am and not because he was wrong and I was right, but that’s who I am.”

Which is why Kekalainen and returning Blue Jackets President John Davidson picked Larsen over more experienced coaches, including Rick Tocchet and Gerard Gallant. After last season went off the rails and Columbus finished in last place, picking a coach is another step in a crucial offseason with the organization betting big on Larsen being the best fit.

“There’s a lot of work ahead of us, but it’s exciting,” Davidson said. “We’ve now made this choice. We feel it’s a very strong choice. The communication skills from Brad are exceptional, his love of the Blue Jackets and Columbus are way up the ladder. There was a lot of very positive things.”

One negative thing could be a potential trade of franchise cornerstone defenseman Seth Jones, who is one year away from being a free agent and has reportedly said he won’t re-sign with Columbus. Larsen may not be able to change Jones’ mind but plans to reach out sooner than later.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Jonesy -- his game, him as a person,” Larsen said. “He checks a lot of the boxes. We’ll see what transpires there.”

View Comments