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No panic with Caufield in the midst of a slump

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Every forward in the National Hockey League goes through scoring slumps; some players slump multiple times over the course of a regular season.

What separates the great scorers from the rest of the pack is their ability to make sure those slumps don’t become droughts. You see the great ones persistently generating scoring chances through regular offensive zone pressure; eventually the dam breaks, puck luck returns, and shooting percentages normalize.

Montreal Canadiens forward Cole Caufield is going through a bit of a scoring slowdown right now. It’s drawing attention for two reasons – the first is that expectations are high for a 22-year-old winger who has established himself as a high-end attacker early in his career; the second is that this is happening while the Canadiens are digging themselves out of a deep rebuild hole and playing competitive hockey (7-7-2; an 82-point pace) to start the regular season.

Caufield has scored just one goal over the past nine games, playing most of his minutes alongside Nick Suzuki, with Juraj Slafkovsky and Rafael Harvey-Pinard rotating as the other winger on his line.

The group has generally had success to start the year, but head coach Martin St. Louis is searching for a bit more offence right now, and not solely from Caufield or his line – the Canadiens are averaging just 2.4 goals per game over the same nine-game period, which is where the 29th ranked-offence (Seattle) currently sit over the full year.

Whether or not Montreal can remain competitive over the course of the full season remains to be seen. But to the extent they do, a lot of it will stem from their core players – starting with attackers like Caufield – continuing to produce. And when I look at Caufield’s scoring slowdown, I see a slump, not a drought. That’s a good sign if you are a Canadiens fan.

Why do I differentiate between the two? Because Caufield is still generating heaps of pressure when he’s on the ice.

If we trend Caufield’s career by way of three measures – shot volume, expected goals (shots adjusted for angle, distances, and location), and real goals – we see very encouraging trends. While his goal scoring is volatile, Caufield’s pressure rates are on the rise. This sort of divergence historically is very encouraging for future offensive breakouts, because the opportunities are there, and Caufield didn’t suddenly forget how to whip the puck off his stick:

The reality is Caufield is both a very reliable attacker and in the first scoring drawdown of his career. You start to panic when players see slippage in their ability to generate shots in volume, or when those shots move outside of the dangerous scoring areas and more towards the perimeter. That just simply hasn’t been the case for Caufield.

It’s true even if you strip out power-play opportunities from the equation. If we isolate Caufield’s shooting profile to just 5-on-5 minutes, we see that most of the attacking volume is coming from the home plate area and inside of the circles, where shooting percentages tend to surge (via HockeyViz):

Knowing shooting and scoring chance volumes are both up for Caufield, and seeing less frequency of shooting volumes from the less dangerous areas of the ice (notably, on the perimeter and from distance; towards the blueline), we can reasonably conclude that Caufield and his line are in the midst of a shooting slump right now.

To that end, it’s imperative Caufield and company continue to do the little things right on the ice – playing clean defensively, continuing to attack flat-footed defences on rush and counterattacking opportunities, sustaining offensive zone pressure when in control of the puck, and the like.

There are never any guarantees as to when expected regression will occur; we have seen scoring slumps of considerably longer stretches from Hall of Fame-calibre forwards. Breakouts can only come from sustained opportunity.

That next opportunity for Caufield comes tonight against the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference