Wisconsin, it would appear, is finally back. After losing seasons in four of the last five years, the Badgers once again appear to be one of the top teams in the country, currently ranked 7th in national polls. This wasn’t unexpected, as their stockpile of blue chip NHL prospects finally began to matriculate to campus, but after facing a tough early-season non-conference schedule and coming out the other side with a 4-2-0 record, Wisconsin comes into Big Ten conference play this week with the on-ice product matching their hype.
Within that good start for the Badgers, there are pair of performances that I found particularly noteworthy from a statistical standpoint.
The first is of no surprise. Cole Caufield came to Madison with sky-high expectations. Caufield set a National Team Development Program record by scoring 72 goals last season, breaking the previous record of 55 goals set by Auston Matthews, before being selected 15th overall in the NHL Draft last summer.
Three weekends into his career at Wisconsin, Caufield is meeting, if not exceeding those expectations. Caufield has scored seven goals in his first six games. Wisconsin has, at a minimum, 30 games remaining on their schedule. If you extrapolate his current goals/game over the entire season, that puts him on pace to score 42 goals. No player has scored 40 goals in an NCAA season since at least 2004-2005, which is as far back as USCHO’s national scoring statistics go.
So will Caufield become the first player in a generation to hit 40 goals? More than likely not. Scoring goals in college hockey is really hard to do, and assuming 35 goals onto his final total is a gigantic leap of faith. A slump, an injury, some bad puck luck; it’s way too easy to fall off the pace, and next to impossible to get ahead of it.
But, in looking at what Caufield has done so far, I do think there are some reasons that this goal-scoring pace might actually be somewhat sustainable.
Foremost is that Caufield shoots the puck a lot. He’s taken 27 shots on goal through six games; his 4.50 shots on goal per game currently ranks tied for fifth nationally. For the mathematically-disinclined, seven goals on 27 shots averages out to a shooting percentage of 25.9%.
It’s worth pointing out here that most of us are accustomed to NHL’s iron law of shooting percentages that anything above 10% is unsustainable for a long period and due for a regression at some point. That’s not necessarily the case in college hockey. There are only two players that have reached 35 goals since 2012-2013 when College Hockey Inc. began tracking shooting percentage numbers. Those players are: Kyle Connor in 15-16, when he scored 35 goals on 148 shots(23.6%), and Johnny Gaudreau’s incredible 13-14 campaign in which he scored 36 goals on 159 shots(22.6%).
Other notable players to shoot >20% over a season include Wade Allison’s injury-shortened 17-18 season(27.8%), Troy Terry in 16-17(22%), and Brock Boeser in 15-16(20.2%). Whether it’s the talent disparity, excess ice time, or short season, there are plenty of examples out there in recent college hockey history that suggest Caufield could maintain a shooting percentage above 20% through the entire season.
If Caufield continued to take 4.5 shots on goal per game for the rest of the season, and only had a 20% shooting percentage the rest of the season, he’d be at 34 goals after the first round of the Big Ten playoffs.
The next reason for optimism is that despite it being early in the season, Wisconsin has played a fairly difficult schedule, to this point. One of the big reasons many players start out on pace to reach big milestones and then drop off is that they’re able to pad stats in early-season non-conference games, and that’s difficult to maintain as they get into the meat of the conference season. That could happen with Caufield as well. He’s currently benefiting from a pair of goals in a wild 11-5 win over Merrimack, and the Big Ten currently has the best inter-conference record of any conference, so his second half should be a grind. But besides that, Wisconsin has played a game against Boston College, and series against Minnesota Duluth, and Clarkson, both of whom are likely to make the NCAA Tournament largely on the strength of their defensive play. Meanwhile, Caufield will play four games against Michigan State, four against a Penn State that plays defense as a hobby, and pair of home games against Arizona State, who is a disaster on larger ice surfaces. There’s potential to make up some ground with some big games there.
Finally, it’s worth noting that only two of Caufield’s seven goals have come via the power play. The fact that he is producing at even strength suggests he might be less prone to big swings one way or the other in terms of goal production.
Again, we’re talking about something that no one has been able to do since the game of hockey looked much different than it does today. But it would be fascinating to see Caufield make an honest run at it.
Meanwhile, Caufield has a teammate at forward who might be something even more remarkable. For all the big name NHL prospects on the Wisconsin line chart, their best, most effective player might be undrafted sophomore forward Roman Ahcan.
Ahcan, who has been playing winger on what is ostensibly Wisconsin’s third line, is tied with Caufield for the team lead in scoring with 2-7-9 through six games. But more significantly, Ahcan is tied for the national lead with a +/- rating of +11. I understand people’s objections to +/- as a stat, but let me put what Ahcan is doing into a sharper context. At even strength this season, Wisconsin outscores their opponents 8-0 when Ahcan is on the ice. When Ahcan isn’t on the ice, the Badgers get outscored 18-9(and one of Wisconsin’s goals was an empty-netter) at even strength. That’s an extremely significant difference, well outside out any margin of error in +/- stats.
Furthermore, Ahcan has been effective on the penalty kill. He’s been on the ice for three Badger shorthanded goals this year, assisting on two of them. Meanwhile, the Badgers have only given up two power play goals on 22 kills this year(Ahcan was on the ice for one of them). They’ve literally scored more goals their opposition while playing shorthanded this year. Credit for a stat like that should be spread in a lot of different directions, but certainly Ahcan would seem to play a part.
Again, who knows if what Ahcan is doing is sustainable. It’s probably not, at least to that degree. But it’s impressive nonetheless, and maybe merit keeping a closer eye on what Ahcan is doing on the ice. If continues to be so effective in that third line role, that might open up more space for the skilled forwards on Wisconsin’s top two lines to do more work against more favorable match-ups, and perhaps even helps Cole Caufield get closer to reaching the magical 40-goal mark.