Cole Caufield has been an elite scorer at every level he's played. It was no different on Friday when he made his pro debut.
The Montreal Canadiens prospect — who was named this year's Hobey Baker Award winner as the top player in the NCAA earlier Friday — had two goals and an assist for the Laval Rocket in a 5-3 win against the Toronto Marlies in American Hockey League play.
Caufield, selected by Montreal 15th overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, scored 30 goals and 52 points in 31 games in his sophomore season with the Wisconsin Badgers to lead all collegiate players and earn the Hobey Baker nod over North Dakota forward Shane Pinto and Minnesota State goaltender Dryden McKay.
"It means a lot, obviously it was something that was a goal of mine going into the year. It's a special award," Caufield said following his pro debut.
"It was on my mind pretty much all day. I was getting dressed for warmup (when I found out)."
Caufield's second goal on Friday was a second-chance effort on a partial breakaway, while his first-career goal was a replica of Alex Ovechkin, a deadly one-timer from the top of the left face-off circle.
"I couldn't have drawn it up any better," he said. "Obviously a great pass on the power play in my favourite spot."
Caufield's college career ended in late March when the Badgers were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA playoffs by Bemidji State, allowing him to sign a three-year entry -level contract with the Canadiens.
After leaving his home country, he went through a mandatory quarantine in a hotel before being able to join Montreal's AHL affiliate.
The 20-year-old forward — known to his teammates as "Goal Caufield" — says he was taught at a young age by his father how to shoot the puck with power and accuracy, and worked on his release everyday growing up.
The five-foot-seven, 165-pound goal-scoring sensation won gold with the United States at the 2021 world junior hockey championship, and is the U.S. national team development program's all-time leader in goals with 126 in 123 games over two seasons before joining the Badgers in 2019-20.
"I think it's about getting chances and hitting the net. As long as I'm doing that and creating offensive-zone pressure I think that's when I'm having the most success," he said.
Caufield, who wore No. 8 with Wisconsin and No. 44 with the Rocket, used No. 26 growing up in honour of his favourite player, pint-sized Hall of Fame winger Martin St. Louis.
He accepts that critics will always point out his smaller size.
"It's never going away. People are going to continue to stab at that, but I put pressure on myself to be better each day," he said. "Only thing that matters is how my teammates and coaches think I play."
His Badgers teammates were watching his first game on AHL TV, cheering him on as he scored what turned out to be the game winner.
Taking home college hockey's top award and making his pro debut made it a good day for the native of Stevens Point, Wis.
"It's something I dreamed about as a kid and I'm just enjoying the moment and living every second."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 9, 2021.
The Canadian Press