Drake Caggiula has been on ESPN’s SportsCenter for Plays of the Day probably more than any other college hockey player.
Saturday, North Dakota’s creative stick-handling forward will make his first appearance on ASN when UND, 20-3-3 and No. 3 in the PairWise rankings, travels to Western Michigan, 7-14-3 in a key NCHC series.
Just a tip: When you tune in, keep your eyes peeled on North Dakota’s vaunted CBS Line. All have NHL potential and see the ice on another level that makes a nickname a virtual necessity.
Hence, CBS: senior Caggiula (15 goals, 15 assists), freshman Brock Boeser (15, 12) and sophomore Nick Schmaltz (3, 24) — the latter two first-round NHL draft picks for the Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively.
Since coming together in the fourth game of the season because of injuries to others, the trio have been one of the most explosive lines in all of college hockey. Caggiula (pronounced “Ca-JEWEL-Ah”) has played in 146 games in his career, garnering 52 goals and 54 assists. Never, he said, has he been on a line that’s jelled better.
“I’ve had some great linemates since I’ve been here but this so far this year has been out of this world and a lot of fun,” Caggiula said. “We all bring a different part of the game to the line. Boeser is an absolute great goal scorer; Nicky is absolute finesse, great vision, the best I’ve ever had on my line; and I know I bring the energy. I think the three of us blend together and bring a different element to the game.
“At the same time we’re able to read off each other and we all have wide skill sets to excel. We have a lot of chemistry off and on the ice and that helps.”
What they perhaps do better than most is work well away from the puck on both ends.
Despite two first-round picks — and Schmaltz and Caggiula being named Hobey Baker candidates — there is no star on the line, but they often look like an NHL line competing against college players.
There was the tic-tac-toe goal in early November that made SportsCenter when all five North Dakota players on the ice one-touched the puck back-and-forth across the ice in the Miami zone before Schmaltz one-timed Caggiula’s pass into the net.
In December, while Boeser and Schmaltz were in Finland helping Team USA earn a bronze medal at the World Juniors, Caggiula again made ESPN’s “Play of the Day” when he caught an Alabama-Huntsville defenseman flat-footed on a shorthanded breakaway, tossed the puck around the defender while lifting his stick over his head, cut back around him and scored for a pivotal 2-1 lead en route to the win.
The stylistic moves have led to the undrafted senior currently second in fan voting with nearly 10% of the votes for the Hobey Baker award, barely trailing Boston College goalie Thatcher Demko.
Schmaltz and WMU junior forward Sheldon Dries each have about 1%.
“I never dreamt I would be talked about for the Hobey,” Caggiula said. “The thing about the highlight goals is YouTube and ESPN only put up the ones that work for people to see. I’ve failed a hundred times more than I’ve succeeded. They just don’t show those.”
Caggiula is a player not afraid to take chances and do things his own way.
For Christmas, his aunt got him an autographed photo of his favorite former UND player Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks. It was while Caggiula was playing hockey in Canada and watching Toews represent his country that he first heard of UND’s program and facilities.
“Growing up in Canada watching the World Juniors is kind of a big deal and I knew where most of the players on Team Canada were from except for him,” Caggiula said. “I liked the way he played so I looked him up on the Internet and saw he went to UND. I thought if I ever could play here it would be awesome.”
Like Toews, Caggiula wears No. 9 for UND. And like Toews, he is a difference-maker.
Listed at a generous 5-9, he is basically a water bug on skates, constantly moving and playing both ends of the rink and irritating foes. He doesn’t mind going through or around opponents.
“Drake is hard-nosed,” Schmaltz said. “He’s got finesses but he has a really high skill end and great vision and can shoot the puck.
“We all do something different but play well together. Brock is is more of a straight-line player with a great shot. He can score from anywhere.”
All three are expected to have NHL offers this season, but whether Boeser or Schmaltz leave as underclassmen hasn’t been decided yet.
Caggiula’s advice is follow your heart and make sure you get all the information before doing anything. He had several offers to leave for the NHL after his junior season, but he returned for his senior season after promising his parents he would get his degree in kinesiology.
“This place has everything you need to grow as a player,” Caggiula said. “I’d tell anyone before you go pro make sure you’re getting the right information and whether you’re coming back or going, do it 100%.
“I do want to keep playing hockey, but I came here for an education as well. Sometimes, I’ll sit in the training room and watch (Mark Poolman, the athletic trainer) taping guys and I’ll ask questions about the injuries. I know I could never have a job just sitting behind a desk. I want to be involved in the game and it’s pretty cool that I can watch him and learn my homework. It helps put what I’m studying in perspective.”
Of the eight players he’s been on lines with over his college career, he is the only one whose rights aren’t owned by an NHL team.
Doesn’t bother him, he says, but at the same time, it fuels him.
“It kind of puts a chip on my shoulder, yeah,” he said. “But I never think ‘I’m playing with two first rounders’ or anything like that. Being a free agent, the better you perform, the more options you’ll have. It’s been been a pretty good season so far but we still have half a season to go. I can’t rest on my laurels and hopefully at the end of this season I’ll have a few options to choose from.”
Following his freshman season, former coach Dave Hakstol took him aside and asked what he wanted out of his career.
“I missed three games that season, two of them playoff games as a healthy scratch because I was inconsistent,” Caggiula said. “Hak gave me some great advice. It was typical freshman stuff I was doing, but I expected more of myself. He told me that coaches look for consistency out of players here and at the pro level. I went home that summer and made sure my body was always ready and now I come to the rink each day trying to get better.”
With Berry replacing Hakstol, he said the team’s culture has remained the same but players are allowed to open up more offensively.
“They’re a lot alike in their coaching approach and you can see each has success,” Caggiula said. “Hak was more strict on the system and (Berry) gives us a little more room to create offensively. He’s pretty low-key and we appreciate his approach, but when he raises his voice, you listen because it doesn’t happen often.”