Some believe the Flyers should think small with their first pick in the NHL draft.
As in 5-foot-7 right winger Cole Caufield — if he is still on the board when the Flyers make their first selection, at No. 11, on June 21.
Center Jack Hughes got most of the headlines for the U.S. National Development Team, and he is expected to be the first player chosen overall. But Caufield, his diminutive teammate (and frequent linemate), had eye-opening numbers of his own. Hughes led the junior team with 48 points in 24 games; Caufield scored a team-high 29 goals in 28 games.
A University of Wisconsin recruit, Caufield, 18, has a quick release, and scouts say his hockey IQ is off the charts. They say he has good speed but needs to get faster to compete at the next level.
Will he still be around when the Flyers make their first pick? Well, the draft lottery didn’t help, as the Flyers actually dropped a spot, from No. 10 to No. 11. In reputable mock drafts, Caufield has been as high as No. 7 and as low as No. 30.
“He’s a pure scorer. He’s smart. He’s competitive. He’s quick,” Flyers draft guru/assistant general manager Brent Flahr said. “He knows how to find holes and he does it every game. You watch him against college teams against players who are much older and have bigger bodies and you think he’s going to struggle – and he scores. He’s proven a lot of people wrong.”
The consensus has the Wisconsin native going in the early to mid teens, which would make him available for the Flyers.
Ryan Wagman, director of prospect scouting at McKeen’s Hockey, saw Caufield and his teammates play eight times this season. Eight players from Caufield’s U.S. team could be selected in the first round.
“They’re the Harlem Globetrotters,” Wagman said. “They dominate.”
Caufield’s size isn’t overly concerning. At 162 pounds, he won’t win most board battles, but he is a natural goal scorer, which is one of the organization’s most pressing needs.
This isn’t your father’s NHL. Physical play has been deemphasized. Smaller players can thrive now because of the rule changes.
South Jersey’s Johnny Gaudreau, the shifty Calgary left winger who is generously listed at 5-9, 165 pounds, finished tied for seventh in the league with 99 points this season. Chicago left winger Alex DeBrincat, who stands 5-7 and weighs 165 pounds, had 41 goals, tied for sixth in the NHL.
Both players are making lots of general managers and scouting directors shake their heads for bypassing them in their respective drafts. Gaudreau was selected in the fourth round (103rd overall) of the 2011 draft — the Flyers took Sean Couturier (a home run at No. 8 overall) and Nick Cousins (68th) ahead of him.
DeBrincat was chosen in the second round (39th overall) in 2016. The Flyers took German Rubtsov (22nd overall) and Pascal Laberge (36th), forwards who are still developing but have been slowed by injuries, while DeBrincat was available.
Caufield is "similar to DeBrincat, and it’s not just the fact that he’s tiny and he scores a ton,” Wagman said. “He’s really smart and he’s able to find holes in the coverage. He’s not a perimeter player like a lot of small guys, and he’s got a great shot. He’s a little thick and he has strength.”
Wagman calls him a “good skater who has better wiggle than pure speed. He’s slippery and a good puck handler, but his shot is what’s key. I think he should go somewhere in that 10-to-15 range, absolutely.”
Will teams regret bypassing a chance to draft Caufield?
“I think there’s a good chance Philly will draft from that program, because they have a history of drafting from that program," Wagman said. Joel Farabee and James van Riemsdyk were first-round picks by the Flyers.
He added defenseman Cam York and left winger Matthew Boldy as other U.S. national development program players who might be available when the Flyers pick at No. 11.
“Any of them would be fine.," he said. "It really depends on what they see as the biggest system needs. I don’t think there’s a huge gap between the value of a Cam York or a Matthew Boldy or a Cole Caufield. Boldy has a bit more value off the puck than Caufield does. Caufield is almost never used on the penalty kill, as an example, whereas Boldy has been getting penalty-kill time.”
Flahr said Caufield won’t remind folks of speedy Marty St. Louis with his legs, “but I don’t think skating is an issue with him. He has good speed. Obviously, he still has to get stronger, but he’s one of those guys who is always in the right spot and he gets plenty of looks at the net. Even the games Hughes has been out, he’s produced.”