TEMPE, ARIZ. — Three assists in four games, and counting.
That’s how Cale Makar’s season has started with UMass, where he’s one of a whopping 13 freshmen listed on the team’s official roster this year.
There’s been huge turnover for the Hockey East organization, and that comes with plenty of growing pains. UMass currently boasts a 3-1-0 record, but they’re still letting a pair of goaltenders battle it out for the starting gig - one a freshman, the other a ‘veteran’ player in just his second year - and with essentially half their roster new to college hockey, they’ve got a ways to go before they’re a powerhouse.
Of those numerous freshmen, though, Makar is immediately a stand-out.
Fast and smart
He’s arguably the most noticeable player on the roster, reinforcing Colorado’s decision to take him fourth overall at the draft in Chicago this summer.
Part of it is his ability to join the play, something that will hopefully be accompanied by an increased defensive prowess as he navigates the bigger, burlier NCAA after two-and-a-half seasons in the AJHL.
The other part, though, is his ability to see the bigger picture, both on and off the ice.
Mile High Hockey sat down with Makar at Oceanside Arena in Tempe, Arizona just ahead of the team’s season opener.
He and his teammates were making their first foray into desert hockey, skating at one of the oldest rinks in Phoenix.
They would ultimately split their two-game road series against Arizona State University, dropping the opener by a 5-3 decision before coming back to win game two 4-2. It certainly wasn’t for lack of effort on his part, though.
Makar was the last player off the ice at that practice, letting habit and an instinctual need to work harder, better, longer than the competition override his memory that he was set to be interviewed upon leaving the ice.
He was apologetic that he’d taken so long to wrap things up, but it was almost more beneficial to see how hard he had worked. The first one on and the last one off, the 18-year-old Calgary native clearly didn’t let his obvious talent rid him of his desire to constantly be a student of the game.
“It’s been pretty crazy, to be honest,” he admitted, opening up his interview with talk about the move from Canadian Junior A to NCAA Division I.
“Obviously we have a completely new team this year, just like… a new culture.
So in terms of pace and stuff, everything’s way up.”
In addition to Makar, the blue line boasts two other freshman. There’s 2017 San Jose Sharks second-round pick Mario Ferraro, who put up an impressive 41 points in 60 games with the USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers last year, and a Finnish import named Eetu Torpstrom looking to develop his game with his first-ever season of North American hockey.
That trio is having to adapt with a fairly young defensive corps to begin with. They’re joined by just two true upperclassmen, while the rest of the blue line is either true sophomores or a redshirt.
It’s a huge pace shift, Makar insisted, especially with so many new faces.
He had plenty of knowledge to bring in, though, after development camp with the Avalanche this summer.
“A lot of what it taught me was just quick crossovers on the blue line, always in a power stance… dev camp was helpful for me especially in terms of some of the smaller defensive aspects of the game.”
That’s reassuring for the Avalanche community, who hope to see that elusive all-around defenseman make its way into the lineup in coming seasons.
Although Erik Johnson remains the best option on the blue line, the drop-off from there is significant; Tyson Barrie’s defensive prowess lacks top-pairing potential, and the remainder of the defensive corps (both at the NHL and minor league level) sits yet another level below that.
Makar comes into his first NCAA season with plenty of playmaking ability.
He’s fast, able to intercept a play with efficient footwork and good reads of oncoming traffic - and he’s got skilled hands, following in the trend of speedy and talented defensemen that’s been emerging at the NHL level over the last few years.
The first thing he mentioned out of development camp, though, was how much he took away on the defensive side of things. That area remains the biggest question mark in his game in terms of transition to the highest level of play; if he’s able to figure that out against NCAA opponents, it should bode well for both him and Colorado down the line.
For an 18-year-old, his game looks about on par with where it should be. Putting his talent aside, he’s got the areas of improvement and the necessary growth factors that almost every teenaged prospect has, barring the McDavids and Matthews of the world.
From a mental standpoint, though, he’s already at the top of his class.
Quick with an insightful answer, Makar’s interview was devoid of buzzwords and empty phrases.
There was no talk of putting pucks in deep, moving feet, or going hard along the boards. He didn’t mention compete level once, and the only ‘ready 100 percent’ catchphrase used came when he talked about jumping out of the gate on the season to catch the eye of Team Canada.
The difference in international play and college hockey? Just some age and experience. Areas to work on? Defensive angles and puck movement, not battle level or grit. Talk about the World Junior Summer Showcase? Diplomatic, but informative.
“Obviously Canada wishes things would have gone better,” he admitted, referring to the fact that Canada dropped their final game of the showcase 7-5 against Team USA.
“Personally, though, I thought it went pretty well.”
It certainly did. Billed as a player who could become Canada’s Erik Karlsson, Makar played to be noticed - and it worked. He was considered one of the more dynamic players on a Canadian roster that fell a bit flat, although he seemed incredibly cognizant of that (if unwilling to sell his own teammates short with anything but a politely honest answer).
That honesty carried over through the interview, shunning the quick answer alongside the discarded buzzwords when it came to talking about the side he’d like to play on.
At the moment, Makar is being played as a right defenseman, lining up on his shooting side.
For the Avalanche, that clearly creates a bottleneck if they want him to get top four minutes in the coming seasons. Both Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie are right shots as well, which would leave Makar either playing his off-side or slotting in as a third pairing.
Would that be okay with him? Sure, but he’s actually fine playing on the left. As a matter of fact, he prefers it. When asked if he’s spent any time playing on the left, he had an unexpected response.
“Actually, if I really had to pick?” he shrugged. “If I had to pick which side I like better, I’d say left.”
It’s somewhat unsurprising, given his ability to command the play in the offensive zone. As wingers sometimes thrive on their off sides, it seems Makar feels his game matches that as well.
“I’m fully comfortable playing on the right side, and I’m well aware… I mean, I can play either side during the game. Right side is where I’m at right now, and I’m fully fine with that. But I’m comfortable on both sides.”
He doesn’t think a hot dog is a sandwich, and he doesn’t really know why he wears multiples of the number four; for every serious answer he gives, he’s got a lighthearted quip to let his fans know he’s not all business.
It may be that flexibility, that resiliency that makes him so effective if and when he hits the NHL. For now, though, he’s thriving in a role helping a young team come together. For all their freshmen presence, Cale Makar sure looks at home on that fresh college ice.