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Size doesn’t matter for NHL draft prospect Cole Caufield

Cole Caufield is not up here. To find the goal-scoring dynamo, look down.

Keep going.

A little more.

Almost there.

Hello.

At 5 feet, 7¼ inches tall — don’t forget that extra quarter-inch — Caufield rewrote the record book at the U.S. National Team Development Program, and the Wisconsin-bound winger is one of the most prolific goal scorers to enter the NHL draft in recent years.

Previously, players of Caufield’s stature had to wait to hear their name called.

But with the league’s added emphasis on speed and skill, Caufield will serve as an interesting case study when the first round takes place Friday in Vancouver, British Columbia.

He is expected to be off the board when the Golden Knights make their selection at No. 17 overall.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen a better goal scorer at his age,” Wisconsin hockey coach Tony Granato said. “A lot of teams are talking about taking him really high, but it takes a team with the courage to do it. Traditionally, they don’t draft small players in the top 10. But he’s built to compete and be productive in the NHL.”

During his two seasons with the NTDP, Caufield earned the nickname “Smiles” thanks to his perma-grin and scored 126 goals to obliterate the program’s career record of 104 set by three-time NHL All-Star Phil Kessel.

He tallied 72 goals in 64 games this past season while skating on a line with projected No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes, surpassing the season marks set by current NHL stars Auston Matthews (55) and Patrick Kane (52).

Caufield’s total included 14 goals at the Under-18 World Championships, which matched the tournament record set by Alex Ovechkin.

“Elite release, and the accuracy is the key factor,” ESPN.com NHL draft analyst Chris Peters said. “He has the ability to create a little extra space for himself when he has the puck on his stick, and he can distribute, as well.

“But the amazing thing to me is, everybody at that tournament knew who they had to stop and knew when he was on the ice, and it didn’t matter because of that sense of timing. That ability to get lost in the offensive zone and pop out at the exact right time. It truly is a remarkable asset.” https://www.nhl.com/flames/video/combine-caufield-010619/t-277437092/c-68358503

Since the draft was instituted in 1963, two players listed at 5-7 have been selected in the first round, according to the NHL.com database.

Ken Hicks was taken third overall by Oakland in 1967 and never reached the NHL. Kailer Yamamoto went 22nd overall to Edmonton in 2017 and has one goal and five points in 26 career NHL games.

Should Caufield be selected in the top 10, he would join 5-9 defenseman Quinn Hughes (Vancouver, 2018) and 5-8 Sergei Samsonov (Boston, 1997) as the only skaters listed at 5-9 or shorter in the past 40 years to be selected that high.

“If you watch him, he didn’t score those 72 goals just by floating around the outside. He got to the net, he got to the dirty areas where you have to go to be productive,” said Adam Kimelman, co-host of the NHL.com Draft Class podcast. “I think the mold has already been set that you can find smaller guys and have them be successful. The fear factor in finding that kind of player is gone now.”

Caufield, 18, has drawn comparisons to Knights left wing Jonathan Marchessault (5-9) and diminutive scorers Viktor Arvidsson (5-9) of Nashville and Cam Atkinson (5-8) of Columbus. Kimelman noted similarities to Kessel’s playing style.

But most observers cite Chicago’s 5-7, 165-pound scoring machine Alex DeBrincat as the closest facsimile.

“It’s less about the size and more about the way that Alex DeBrincat scores goals,” Peters said. “And I think Cole Caufield does it better at the same age.”

Caufield, who weighed 163 pounds at the NHL Combine this month, is adept at finding open space and sneaking past defenders into prime scoring areas. And like DeBrincat, he’s also willing to pay a price going to the net.

DeBrincat fell to the second round (39th overall) in 2016 despite an impressive junior career and scored 41 goals this past season for the Blackhawks. Are teams willing to make the same mistake with Caufield?

“Size isn’t really a factor with the way him and I play, and I think we’re going to be able to have an impact on the team we play for,” Caufield said at the combine. “I don’t think size is a factor, and I don’t think it’s a risk anymore.”

Caufield is the eighth-ranked North American skater by the NHL Central Scouting Bureau with Buffalo (No. 7) and Vancouver (No. 10) most often mentioned by analysts as possible landing spots.

If his height does scare off clubs in the top 10, Caufield is not expected to fall past Arizona at No. 14.

“His hockey IQ is elite, and he doesn’t have to cheat the game to get his points,” Granato said. “I don’t know all the players in the draft, but I know if you take Cole Caufield, you’re getting a player who is going to be really productive for your organization.”

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.

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