Prospect Ramblings: Nikita Chibrikov, Dylan Cozens, J.J. Peterka, Cole Caufield, and a Look at Nils Hoglander’s NHL Debut

Kevin Wong

2021-01-16

With the 2020-2021 National Hockey League season having just begun, all eyes are on the league’s newest prospects to see which will live up to the expectations placed upon them. Sometimes, a prospect can draw the ire of a fanbase when their rate of production in the NHL does not quickly reflect the hype that they generated. It is important to assess prospects on the basis of their habits and overall contributions rather than solely their point totals, especially when one takes into account their ice time and usage. Their points will arrive as long as they are generating opportunities and showing signs that they can control the pace of play.

Tendencies are more crucial than anything else when evaluating prospects, and they can often reveal which players will not make the NHL even if they are prolific point producers in junior hockey.

In recent weeks, we have looked at numerous top draft selections who failed to become impact NHL players, as well as those who currently remain on the outside. The NHL is a difficult league to join, and certain qualities are required in order for players to become reliable contributors. The most desirable skater type should be the line driver — the player who creates offense regardless of who they play with. Forwards in the NHL must either be line drivers, defensive stalwarts, or high-IQ, complementary finishers.

If a player can not be any of those three types, then their likelihood of being effective in the NHL will be quite low, even if a team places that player alongside high-end linemates.

A skater of this ilk, for example, might still fail to be effective in the NHL on a line with Connor McDavid. The Edmonton Oilers’ fourth-overall selection in 2016, Jesse Puljujarvi, has struggled to be effective in spite of opportunities to play with such stars as McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The north-south rushes of this lanky, 6’4” sniper have not proven to be fruitful in the NHL.

 

Intelligent grinder Alexander Burrows, on the other hand, was able to improve the play of superstars Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Burrows knew where to be positionally in order to support the cycle plays of the Sedin twins. Despite not being a star individual scorer, he experienced more success than anyone else who had ever played with the star duo.

Hockey IQ is the most important trait. As skilled as a player may be, they are only as good as their positional play allows them to be.

Many premium picks are still used to select players who lack the decision-making soundness to fully take advantage of their talent, speed and physical stature. Skill alone will only take a prospect so far.

If a scout can make a precise determination about a player’s ability to anticipate and process the development of plays, then they may be able to better predict that player’s chances of developing into an effective NHL player. One can look at a player such as Dylan Cozens and recognize the short path that he has to the NHL. In fact, he made his Buffalo Sabres debut on Thursday night. Meanwhile, a player such as Cole Perfetti who lingers too often in open ice, does not contribute to his team’s forecheck, and sometimes plays at an insufficient pace for the NHL, is less certain to reach his perceived potential due to such deficiencies.

Perfetti has in some circles been deemed a high-IQ player. It seems that the definition of hockey IQ differs greatly between scouts. Likewise, each scout has their own rubric when evaluating players via visual methods. Just as some metrics are more valuable than others on the analytics side of player evaluations, certain criteria may help to produce better results on the side of film.

It is worth saying, thus, that the definition of hockey IQ should, to a major degree, include the player’s ability to play a proactive positional style. We have discussed the difference between proactive and reactive positioning in some of our previous articles. Visual scouting plays a crucial role in evaluating this aspect of a player’s game, whereas analytics may fall short of this. Scouts should also place a high priority on this element in their viewings.

The concept of hockey IQ is becoming more nuanced, just as the craft of scouting itself continues to evolve and incorporate new ideas. Twenty years ago, it seemed that stature and raw skill were more important than intuition. There existed a strong belief that a player could be taught positional play but could not be taught high-end skill. As players become more and more skilled, it might be worth reconsidering this notion to some degree.

Skill can certainly be taught to some extent, evident in the sheer amount of skill that we are witnessing in junior hockey. There are a plethora players who can perform some of the trickiest maneuvers on a whim — the lacrosse goal is the latest to become almost second nature to so many young players. Skills camps certainly play a major role in making players shine as far as their abilities with the puck are concerned. Ever since USA Hockey adopted its American Development Model in 2009, which “heightened emphasis on skill, fun, and athlete development principles,” that country has seen an improvement in the overall quality of its prospect pool.

The ability to process the game, however, is what gives players time and space in the NHL. There are so many opportunities to be fooled into believing a player can become an impact player when one bases their evaluations on an individual’s elite tools. A prime example of this is Nail Yakupov, who we discussed in our December 8, 2020 article. One may look at Jesse Puljujarvi as a more recent example.

Jake Virtanen of the Vancouver Canucks recently spent time working with a professional skills coach. While such puck practice has paid off, one of the most limiting factors in his game remains his slow reaction time to plays. From a logical point of view, this appears to be difficult to overcome, as one must effectively try to teach him how to outsmart other players.

Innovative, quick thinking is what separated Wayne Gretzky from everyone else, significantly enhancing his ability to elude opponents and to create space for himself.

Players must be able to outwit their opposition. Those who can not do this will have their talents neutralized by the NHL’s high pace, strict defensive systems, and the intensity of smart opposition players. In spite of all this, every NHL draft features numerous players who are selected with top picks despite showing evidence of red flags in their game. These prospects often encounter a long and arduous road to the NHL despite high levels of proficiency with the puck. If a prospect demonstrates sub-optimal hockey IQ, then that individual is a high-risk selection.

Nikita Chibrikov

With this in mind, our focus turns towards 2021-draft eligible skater Nikita Chibrikov — currently a consensus first-round pick.

This 5’10”, 161 lbs winger has experienced a successful 2020-2021 campaign thus far, having started the year in the MHL and quickly earning a role in Russia’s professional adult leagues. With three goals and eight points in nine MHL games with SKA-1946, Chibrikov played well enough to receive a promotion to the Russia’s second-tier men’s league, the VHL, where he tallied one goal and five points in thirteen games.

His play in the VHL subsequently landed him a position with the organization’s parent club in the KHL, SKA St. Petersburg, when other SKA members such as Vasily Podkolzin were in attendance at the 2021 World Juniors. He scored one goal and just two points in 12 games while receiving an average of 7:12 of ice time per game.

He has since returned to the VHL.

Despite many positive reviews of this player’s style of play, I have some reservations about his ability to become an effective National Hockey League player due primarily to his style of play and substandard sense of anticipation.

For a better sense of his game, we can observe him in three of his recent matches.

Let us look below at his performances in the MHL match between SKA-1946 vs Krasnaya Armiya on September 17, 2020 (MHL), the VHL match between SKA-Neva and HC Tambov on December 16, 2020, and the KHL match between SKA and HC Sochi on December 28, 2020.

 

Despite being only 5’10”, Chibrikov tries to play an agility-based power game. The New York Rangers’ Kaapo Kaako and fellow SKA-1946 teammate Matvey Michkov are two examples of players who play this style. Like Kakko, Chibrikov is not particularly fast in a straight line, but he possesses enough agility to dodge traffic and to shield the puck with sharp pivots.

Here is Kakko in last year’s NHL Return to Play qualifiers against the Carolina Hurricanes. We can develop a sense of his style of play here.

 

Kaako compensates for his lack of straight-line speed with high positional hockey IQ and strength. Those who are not fast skaters must be quicker to anticipate their next position. They must instinctively move into that area of the ice to involve themselves on the forecheck and apply pressure. He and Michkov possess this ability to scan and read plays ahead of time. Michkov, despite being only 5’11” and 157 lbs at this time, is also faster in straight line than either Kakko or Chibrikov. He often puts himself in a position to steal the puck from the opponent and then uses his elite edgework to shake free from the opponent. Both possess high-end puck skills to maintain possession of the puck while weaving. However, their positional awareness, especially Kakko’s due to his slow foot speed, is what allows them to be in the right position in the first place.

Chibrikov’s lack of positional intuition appears to be among his shortcomings based on his showings above.

In each of the games I looked at across the three leagues, he was not a steady contributor to his team’s forecheck. He frequently lagged behind and reacted late to the development of the plays in front of him. Michkov, his teammate, is generally much more successful at pressuring the opposition and putting himself ahead of his opponents. Many expect Michkov to challenge for the first-overall position in the 2023 NHL Draft.

Here is an extended look at Matvey Michkov during last year’s Youth Olympics and in one of his first MHL performances of 2020-2021.

 

Nikita Chibrikov’s best attribute is his ability to use his body and positioning to wedge himself between the opponent and the puck, hence our stylistic comparison. He is, however, inconsistent. In this regard, he pales in comparison to the aforementioned players.

When he is already near the source of the action, he can approach the opposing puck carrier, gain inside body position and steal possession. He often plays an aggressive, sometimes physical style, and is not afraid to battle for space in traffic in all three regions of the ice.

Besides not arriving quickly enough in some instances, though, there are times when he is too passive along the boards. His degree of effort must be more consistent.

Chibrikov has demonstrated a desire to play a defensive game, but this too needs additional work.

There are times when he loses his assignment. At 7:30 of our footage of Chibrikov, for example, he gives the opposing point man far too much time and space to make a play with the puck.

Although he lacks attention to detail, he tries actively to use his stick to pressure the opponent on the backcheck, and on many occasions when the opponent starts their breakout, he will try to block their zone exit by skating directly into their path at their blue line.

When he has the puck, there are times when he holds on to it for too long. This is among the causes for concern about his hockey IQ. For example, at 9:23 and 10:25 of our footage, he has possession of the puck but does not make a timely decision to distribute it.

There are other times when he might carry the puck along the perimeter of the offensive zone, at which point he will shield the puck with his body and dodge opponents with his edge work. He may shoot the puck on goal from anywhere while circling the perimeter much like Florida Panthers prospect Owen Tippett would. There are other times when he may try to force a wraparound attempt as he curls from behind the goal line towards the net-front.

He does not appear to be particularly creative based on these observations. It may be fair, thus, to consider him more of a finisher than a playmaker.

When he is in the offensive zone without the puck, there are times when he will move into the low slot or to the front of the opposing net. A playmaking linemate might be able to take advantage of Chibrikov’s play around the goal-mouth, as he will sometimes look for scoring opportunities in high-percentage areas. He often will go to the front of the net when a teammate takes it behind the goal line and will try to capitalize on any centering feeds.

In transition, his lack of dynamic ability is noticeable. He is not a particularly explosive player, and so he prefers to play a chip-and-chase style when the opposing defenceman is directly in front of him at the offensive blue line. Although he can carry the puck up the ice, most of the time, he will rely on others to move the play up the ice; in such instances, he will often position himself as the trailer while entering the offensive zone. If he receives the puck in a trailing position, he will sometimes try to maneuver into the high slot for a shot attempt.

He does not appear to possess much line-driving ability. He did not create much sustained pressure at all in our footage. While his skill set and tendencies resemble that of an east-west, agility-based power forward, he does not anticipate well enough to achieve consistent success on the forecheck.

While he is quite commonly considered to be a top prospect, it is questionable whether he can be a successful NHL player. As we have observed in previous weeks, numerous top prospects such as Klim Kostin, Casey Mittelstadt and Eeli Tolvanen have been selected in the first round and then not subsequently developed. It is not uncommon for teams to use mid-to-late first-round picks to take chances on highly-skilled players who might show weaknesses in other areas of their game. In the majority of cases, few players after the first handful of draftees can be considered guarantees. Many are projects who possess high-end abilities in some areas but who need further development in others. When the player is deficient in their ability to anticipate plays, however, their path to the NHL requires them to overcome a major hurdle that can only be remedied to a certain extent.

Chibrikov must learn to involve himself consistently in traffic at the high-tempo pace of the NHL and further develop his forechecking and playmaking strategies. At his small size, he also has the downside of playing a style that requires strength and balance if not proactive positioning.

At 5’10” and 160 lbs and with such reliance on a puck protection style, his path to the NHL seems challenging.

Dylan Cozens

After Team Canada captain and Chicago Blackhawks star prospect Kirby Dach was sidelined with a tournament-ending injury at the start of the 2021 World Junior Championship, alternate captain Dylan Cozens took the spotlight as the squad’s on-ice leader and top scorer. He finished second in tournament scoring, behind only Trevor Zegras of Team USA, with eight goals and 16 points in seven games. Cozens performed remarkably for Team Canada in the Edmonton bubble, dominating against Team Germany with six points and recording multiple points in each of his matches against Team Switzerland, Team Finland, Team Czech Republic and Team Russia.

Like the rest of Team Canada, however, he was shut out in the Finals against Team USA.

Today, we will look at three of his performances: his round robin match against Team Finland, the semi-final against Team Russia, and the final against Team USA:

 

His stellar overall play at the World Juniors is a reflection of his NHL readiness. He possesses a very mature two-way game and a powerful straight-line motor. He attended the Buffalo Sabres’ 2020-21 training camp in early January and made his NHL debut on January 14, 2020 in a third-line, right-wing position.

We can take a look at his NHL debut below. He wore #24 for the Sabres in this match.

 

Based on Cozens’ ability to play a responsible two-way game, he can play anywhere in his team’s lineup. This versatility is valuable. He is, thus, more guaranteed to make an impact for the Sabres than many of the team’s other prospects. We examined the Sabres’ prospect situation in our November and December 31-in-31 articles.

Last time, I discussed the importance of not overvaluing point production in the World Junior Championship. Point totals in junior hockey are not always indicative of a player’s ability to translate their game to the NHL. Last week, Trevor Zegras tied Jordan Schroeder‘s Team USA, World Junior Championship record for most career tournament points. Schroeder, a former Vancouver Canucks top prospect, never became a full-time NHL player. He spent time with the Canucks and Minnesota Wild between several stints in the AHL, and he is now with Jokerit in the KHL.

In the case of Dylan Cozens, there is more to his game than just point totals. In fact, even though he led Team Canada in points, he might not be a particularly-prolific NHL player.

He is a fast, aggressive, north-south skater, and he plays a very complete, two-way game. He is a straight-line, speed-based power forward and not so much an agility-based one. He is not the most skilled or creative player in the Sabres’ prospect pipeline, but he is the most versatile. His puck skills are not, for example, quite comparable to that of fellow 2019 draftee and WHL-based prospect Kirby Dach. The skill and playmaking of Dach distinguished him from Cozens at the 2019 NHL Draft.

Cozens’ game is defined by wide drives, aggressive two-way play, traffic in the crease, a big shot, and heavy play at the boards. He is a high-energy, high-tempo, rigid player who hassles opposing puck carriers on the backcheck.

At 6’3”, 187 lbs, he possesses significant size and uses his reach to shield the puck. Whether he is gliding along the perimeter of the offensive zone with it or pushing it through traffic out of his own zone, his frame usually acts as an adequate barrier between the puck and the opponent.

One can see in our footage several moments when, utilizing aggressive stickwork and momentum, he forces the puck past numerous opposing players in a direct path out of his zone. One such instance against Team Finland led to an empty-net opportunity for him in the final moments of that match.

Cozens has above-average straight-line speed, although he also requires a slight wind-up when accelerating from a standstill. Once he gains momentum, he maintains it while turning in order to maneuver more quickly along the ice. His skating style is not based on quick stops and starts, and he is not a particularly deceptive skater.

Coming out of his own zone with the puck, he can also successfully chip the puck past the opponent and then regain possession himself with speed. This is among the differences between Cozens and Chibrikov with regards to their chip-and-chase methods. Cozens is faster and stronger, which makes such plays easier for him to execute successfully.

During rush plays, one of his preferred maneuvers with the puck is to attack from the left side and then make a sharp cut to the right for a shot. On numerous occasions during the 2021 World Juniors, upon crossing the offensive blue line, he faked a wide drive from the left side at top speed and then pulled the puck to the inside for a snap shot.

In cases when he does not take a shot off the rush, he might try to center it to a teammate in the offensive zone or take it all the way to the goal line.

His intelligence on the defensive side of the puck is high. While on the backcheck, he often uses his stick to strip the opponent of the puck from behind, and in defensive zone situations, he actively positions himself in the zone to block the opponent’s shooting lanes.

Along the boards, Cozens often uses his strength to pin the opponent in order to help his team win board battles. When he has the puck, he does not hold on for too long. He promptly moves the puck before his window of opportunity is taken away, and his passes are usually crisp.

His offensive output in the NHL may depend on the quality of his shots as well as his ability to convert deflections and rebounds. His style is neither complex nor fancy.

Some have previously compared him to former Selke Trophy winner Ryan Kesler. The comparison is apt in some ways as far as two-way, straight-line power types are concerned, although other players of this nature are certainly comparable as well. As an offensive player, Kesler often relied on his shot in addition to his speed. When these attributes deteriorated, so did much of his offensive prowess. He was among the league’s best two-way players in his prime, beginning strictly as a defensive player and then peaking offensively between 2009 and 2011 with a high-end wrist shot.

Kesler himself was compared by then-Canucks general manager Brian Burke to Trevor Linden, who was not known for finesse but succeeded by playing a fast, north-south power game and for playing with significant sandpaper. Linden, in the less-structured NHL of the early 1990s, was known for north-south power moves with the puck, his determination around the net, and grit along the boards — a blue-collar, heart-and-soul player who was adored by the entire Canucks fanbase. He, too, garnered some Selke Trophy recognition in the 1995-96 season, although he began his NHL career as a winger with fewer defensive responsibilities.

One may view Dylan Cozens as this same style of player.

During the recent World Junior tournament, once his team established its offensive zone setup, Team Canada utilized Cozens in a net-front role, especially on the powerplay. While teammates such as Alex Newhook were tasked with creating plays along the outside, Cozens stationed himself as a triggerman in the slot.

During the pre-tournament match against Team Russia, Cozens and fellow Sabres top prospect Jack Quinn were placed on a line together, but as both prefer to shoot from the same high-percentage areas, the two were placed on different lines for much of the tournament. Quinn, seven months younger than Cozens, did not make the Sabres’ opening night roster and was assigned to the team’s taxi squad.

Give-and-go plays are crucial to Cozens’ offensive approach. He might, for example, send the puck from the half-wall to a teammate in the corner, and then bee-line to the low slot for a return pass and a one-time shot attempt.

His ability to recover the puck from the opponent on the defensive side of the puck and then generate chances for his team the other way is among the many reasons Cozens can be considered a line driver. He plays a major role in dictating the terms of the action through his two-way efforts. Players who can not do this must rely on others to do this for them — such players would be considered to be passengers. Cozens is regularly involved.

His upside, however, may not be that of a superstar scorer. One can look at his performance against Team USA as an example of what a difficult, high-intensity matchup may do to Cozens’ game. Against a roster that was more evenly balanced against Team Canada than previous opponents, and who played at a breakneck pace, Cozens had much less time to operate. He could not wind up as easily as he could in earlier matches, and he did not demonstrate much offensive creativity or innovation. His offense became limited to a few rush chances and some time spent either crashing the crease or hovering in the high-percentage areas. He was not a tremendous offensive presence in this game.

One must consider his stiff puck skills and relative lack of dynamic ability to be a hindrance as far as his offensive potential is concerned. He is most precisely defined as a workhorse type whose versatility and grit will allow him to be an effective NHL player. He seems poised to be a middle-six NHL player with strong defensive capabilities. This is, however, exactly what the Buffalo Sabres need.

Successful teams often feature a two-way forward who can shut down and shadow the opposition’s best players. Cozens seems poised to become that type of player. He would likely be most comfortable in a secondary role behind a skilled, first-line center such as Jack Eichel. If he can continue to develop on his current trajectory, he will be expected in his prime to log significant shutdown minutes for his team with some secondary offensive contributions.

John-Jason Peterka

Team Germany played above all expectations at the 2021 World Junior Championship.

John-Jason Peterka was a major reason for this. Peterka logged significant minutes for Team Germany alongside high-profile linemate Tim Stutzle, Ottawa’s top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. Both finished tied for third in tournament point scoring along with Anton Lundell of Team Finland. Each had ten points, four of which were goals for Peterka.

At the previous year’s tournament, Peterka scored four goals and six points in seven games. His 2021 output was a step forward offensively.

We last looked at J.J. Peterka in our Sabres November 31-in-31 article. At the 2020 NHL Draft, Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams expressed his belief that Peterka was worthy of a first-round selection. Indeed, he was ranked 27th by our Cam Robinson in his June 2020 draft rankings.

At the Edmonton event this past month, Peterka demonstrated improvements in his offensive game. There were also some detrimental changes to his approach that are worth addressing.

Here is his performance in the 2021 World Junior Quarterfinal against Team Russia:

 

We can contrast this with his performance at last year’s World Junior tournament against Team USA:

 

Due perhaps to Team Germany’s lack of offensive depth, Peterka seemed pressured to cheat defensively. We mentioned in our last assessment of Peterka that he backchecks aggressively, and he continues to do this. His dedication to backchecking is not the point of contention.

Throughout the match, he seemed very eager to leave the defensive zone. He would often begin to take steps out of the zone as soon as it seemed his team was about to retake possession of the puck from the opponent. If he was pressuring the opposing puck carrier at the point, he would sometimes not pressure with as much persistence as necessary to steal the puck away, and the attacker would maintain the puck on his stick with Peterka prematurely exiting his own zone. These fly-bys happened numerous times during his recent performance against Team Russia.

This brings me to another observation.

Numerous factors must be taken into account when observing the progression or regression of a player.

Such factors may include the expectations of the individual’s coaches, the needs of their team at the time, and external pressures that may influence the individual’s personal offensive and defensive strategies.

Scouts must be mindful of various considerations and circumstances that can influence a player’s game. In my writings about Pavel Bure, for instance, I observed the degree to which he played a full, 200-ft game in Vancouver.

 

When one compares his play in Vancouver to his 2000-01 season in Florida, one must also consider the toll of his two knee injuries, the lack of open ice amidst the Dead Puck Era, and the lack of scoring support on the Florida Panthers. These factors forced him to play higher up in his own half of the rink in 2000-01. With the New York Rangers, Bure played a more-disciplined two-way style than in his final days with the Panthers.

Sometimes a player’s production can be stifled or amplified by the team’s style of play and the quality of one’s team. One may, for example, recall speedster Marian Gaborik’s adherence to the defensive systems of head coach Jacques Lemaire with the Minnesota Wild, or the play of Ilya Kovalchuk with the New Jersey Devils as opposed to in Atlanta. Alexander Ovechkin’s game has also undergone a significant transformation since his days as a young, freewheeling, superstar puck rusher.

It is crucial, thus, to gain a sense of a player’s capabilities across numerous scenarios and to understand where chemistry and team systems might change their degrees of success.

As John-Jason Peterka is another Buffalo Sabres prospect, we may compare him to the aforementioned Dylan Cozens. Compared to Cozens, Peterka is shiftier but not as fast. His strides are shorter. He can maneuver side-to-side with slightly more ease. Additionally, he is trickier with his stick handling than Cozens. Thus, in tight spaces, he can be more deceptive, such as when spinning away from opposing bodies to make a play.

He is, however, not nearly as fast in a straight line, nor is he quite as heavy. He does not skate with as much power as Dylan Cozens.

Peterka stands at 5’11” and 192 lbs.

His offensive skill set includes a quick shot release and a one-timer from the right side. Defensively, he tracks his opponents sufficiently — not nearly as well as Cozens — and he uses his body to contain the opposition at the boards. He is tenacious, but not physical as far as body checking is concerned.

He was somewhat inconsistent in this tournament with regards to the completion rate of his passes. Sometimes, he demonstrated enough patience not to force certain plays. There were other times when he tried to rush the puck through traffic to a teammate, resulting in a turnover. He needs to improve his level of consistency as a passer.

Similarly, while tracking the puck’s position without it, he at times was too overzealous in his assumptions about where the puck would go next, leading to his instances of defensive cheating. Perhaps the high-pressure circumstances surrounding Team Germany’s underhanded, underdog situation affected his sense of defensive discipline. The net result of his performance was positive, but those defensive sacrifices can not be made in the NHL.

Team Germany needed Peterka to play an aggressive offensive style, and he delivered by nearly doubling his production compared to last year’s tournament. However, he became less steady on the defensive side of the puck. He will need to strike a balance between the two styles and be more disciplined in his own end in order not to play too risky a style for the NHL.

Cole Caufield

There was significant criticism about Cole Caufield’s performance at the 2021 World Juniors during the recent winter break. Prior to the two-week event, the expectations for this player were astronomical.

He was overshadowed during the tournament by teammates Trevor Zegras, Alex Turcotte and Arthur Kaliyev. Zegras is a skill-based player, Turcotte is a gritty, forechecking playmaker, and Kaliyev is a rangy sniper.

In seven tournament games, Caufield scored just two goals and five points.

It seems that his premature conclusions have been reached in some circles as a result of his subpar point totals. Two years ago, he was regularly regarded as the 2019 NHL draft class’ most-gifted goal scorer. He concluded his most recent campaign (2019-2020) at the University of Wisconsin with 19 goals and 36 points in 36 games.

The 5’7”, 165 lbs winger disappointed many onlookers at the 2021 World Juniors. Before one can reach any conclusions about his ability to translate his goal-scoring prowess to the NHL, it would be worth considering this player’s tendencies, his strengths, his deficiencies, and the type of team he may need to play for in order to succeed.

Let’s look at his game against Team Canada in the 2021 World Junior Final:

 

Caufield spends the majority of his offensive-zone time in the lower half of the zone. It is worth noting that he is the type of goal scorer whose primary objective is to sneak into the soft areas of the ice — the high-percentage areas around the goal –, and he will often glide from the corner of the rink to the hash marks and then back to the corner to make himself available for a pass.

He often looms in the corners and in the slot, moving across relative to where the puck is located. His teammates must find him with a timely pass so that he may one-time the puck on net from a high-percentage position. He supports his team’s forecheck in the corners mostly by putting his smallish frame in the path of the opponent. During such board battles at the end boards, he will often pressure the opponent with another teammate nearby. Once his teammate has engaged on the forecheck in his stead and looks to have potentially retrieved the puck, Caufield will swoop up into an exposed area in front or beside the net that the opponent has neglected. Those who can work with Caufield down low may be able to generate dangerous scoring opportunities for their team in this fashion. He utilizes intelligent positioning in a complementary sense to make himself an available recipient for passes.

He does not possess the strength or stature to win many board battles on his own, but he can tie up the opponent at the boards and offer puck support.

Depending on his team’s style of play and his chemistry with his teammates, he may not always be the most effective player on the ice. However, under the right conditions, he can be a very effective finisher with an impressive arsenal of shots.

Often, teams who play an aggressive north-south style — the current Vancouver Canucks, for example — seek to create scoring opportunities with shot-and-rebound chances from the point. Teams with stingy defensive systems will collapse and clear such rebounds. The Canucks, at their worst during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, were held to the perimeter of the offensive zone and generated no high-percentage scoring opportunities. They spent too much time trying to score with shots from the upper half of the offensive zone and did not generate enough offense via pressure in the corners.

Caufield is not the type of sniper who will spend the majority of his time hovering in the upper half of the offensive zone. We can contrast this directly with the style of play of Eeli Tolvanen and, in recent years, Ilya Kovalchuk. Caufield does his damage to the opposition deep in the offensive zone.

Thus, he would excel in an east-west-based system such as that of the Minnesota Wild. The Wild prefer to distribute the puck from side to side and move it low. Caufield might also be a strong fit with a team that outnumbers the opposition at the end boards and attacks with backdoor plays such as the Vegas Golden Knights. He does not offer much in terms of line-driving ability nor does he contribute much as a puck rusher.

During his zone entry attempts through the neutral zone, he will either be the recipient of a lateral pass coming into the offensive zone, or he will distribute the puck sideways to another player through mid-ice.

Team USA used him as one of two simultaneous trailers on their powerplay drop pass entries. With the opposing defence having retreated into their own zone during the play, Caufield would sometimes receive the puck as Team USA’s trailer, at which point he would carry it up into the offensive zone and either take a shot on goal or distribute the puck to complete the powerplay setup. The Vancouver Canucks sometimes utilized their trailers in this manner last season, giving them opportunities to step up for a shot (see: Brock Boeser’s goal at 7:04 of this highlight package, NJ vs VAN, from November 10, 2019).

Some may have expected Caufield to be a larger line-driving presence or to be a more-dominant force as far as being able to control the pace of his team’s play. Line drivers can produce independently of their linemates and will control the course of action without much reliance on others. Those who do not possess that ability will be more heavily impacted by line chemistry and the teammates that they play with. Caufield is an excellent finisher, but his success in the NHL will also depend significantly on his place in his team’s lineup and his linemates.

He will likely require top-six minutes with other offensive players who can divert attention away from him. As a 5’7” goal scorer who does not contribute to a significant extent defensively, he may not be an appropriate fit in an NHL team’s bottom-six nor may he be preferred in that role relative to other available defensive players. Unlike another sharpshooter who we have analyzed in previous weeks, Eeli Tolvanen, however, Caufield seems more likely to find success in the NHL based on his play in the corners and in the high-percentage areas of the ice. He is a smart positional skater, but he is also dependent on his linemates — in other words, he is a complementary goal-scorer.

Nils Hoglander

Our discussion today ends with a look at a 5’9”, 190 lbs Vancouver Canucks winger who dazzled in his NHL debut: Nils Hoglander. Here is his performance from Wednesday night’s opener against Edmonton. Look for the Canucks’ #36.

 

On nearly every shift in this debut performance, he demonstrated why he will be an impact NHL player. His sense of anticipation was evident in his two performances this week. He recognized where to be on nearly every shift here and consistently hassled the opposition for possession of the puck, pouncing on numerous loose pucks. In addition, he executed intelligent changes of pace with his agile edges to create space for himself in the offensive zone. In other words, when he had the puck, he was frequently elusive and in control. He also performed a handful of creative cross-seam passes to teammates for high-quality shot opportunities.

Late in the second period, Hoglander scored his first career NHL goal by going to the net and capitalizing on a rebound.

The goal was a tremendous reward for his tenacious work that evening, but it was not by any means the most impressive aspect of his performance nor indicative of his play as a whole. His ability to track plays as they developed and to demonstrate measured creativity led Hoglander to influence the flow of his line’s forecheck on several occasions. He was frequently around the puck, and he was noticeable on nearly every shift. This performance was an excellent display of line-driving.

When one compares the footage of Nils Hoglander here with our Chibrikov footage, one can identify stark differences between them in terms of their line-driving ability. Hoglander’s positional intuition allows him to utilize his skill set fully and to thereby assert his presence against other NHL players. Chibrikov too often had no presence whatsoever in the games we looked at.

With numerous players competing for the same roster spots every year, it is worth remembering that the majority of prospects do not become impact NHL players. If a player possesses high positional IQ, then they are a surer bet to become an impact NHL player than someone who can not sufficiently anticipate where to be on the ice to be effective.

If a player can not dictate the pace of play towards the opposing goal, then they must at least demonstrate two-way competence or, as a top-six player, strong complementary positioning. If they can not do that, then they must hope that their team is in a position to insulate them, as they are unlikely to possess enough hockey IQ to positively influence their team’s performance and results. Those who can not meet these requirements will struggle to become anything more than replacement-level players in the NHL, no matter how prolific they are in other leagues.

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Kevin is @CambieKev on Twitter. He is a video editor, scout, and hockey historian who writes for Canucks Army, Nucks Misconduct, Pass It To Bulis, and Last Word on Sports among other publications. He is the creator of The Lost Shifts and the 85-minute film, Pavel Bure: A Rocket Through Time.

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