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Breaking down Cale Makar’s first ten games with the Colorado Avalanche

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There may be a surge in kale purchases in Denver-area supermarkets next season.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-San Jose Sharks at Colorado Avalanche Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

If the world didn’t know who Cale Makar was before this season, they certainly do now. The Colorado Avalanche’s youngest defenseman in the playoffs made his presence known immediately, scoring his first NHL goal in his league debut — in a playoff game.

Although he didn’t pot another one for the remainder of the playoffs, Makar continued to exceed expectations, looking more comfortable with every subsequent game. He joined the Avalanche as their seventh defenseman, but his solid play earned him increased ice-time and a spot on Colorado’s second powerplay unit.

Of the three defensemen to make the jump from NCAA hockey to the NHL this season, Makar was the sole player who joined his team in the middle of the playoffs. Quinn Hughes joined the Vancouver Canucks for the final few games of the regular season. Dante Fabbro did the same, but also played six additional playoff games (Nashville was eliminated in the first round).

The Numbers

You may recall that I wrote an article on NCAA Leapers back in March. Here are all of the players who made the jump from the NCAA to the NHL in the same season since 2017, updated with the three players from this season:

Stats in NHL Leap Year

Player Team Position Age Season GP G A PTS
Player Team Position Age Season GP G A PTS
Brock Boeser Vancouver Canucks RW 20.2 2017-R 9 4 1 5
Clayton Keller Arizona Coyotes C/LW 18.3 2017-R 3 0 2 2
Colin White Ottawa Senators C/RW 20.4 2017-R 2 0 0 0
2017-P 1 0 0 0
Charlie McAvoy* Boston Bruins RD 19.7 2017-P 6 0 3 3
Henrik Borgstrom Florida Panthers C 20.4 2018-R 4 1 0 1
Casey Mittelstadt Buffalo Sabres C 19.7 2018-R 6 1 4 5
Adam Gaudette Vancouver Canucks C 21.6 2018-R 5 0 0 0
Quinn Hughes Vancouver Canucks LD 19.6 2019-R 5 0 3 3
Dante Fabbro Nashville Predators RD 20.10 2019-R 4 1 0 1
2019-P 6 0 1 1
Cale Makar* Colorado Avalanche RD 20.6 2019-P 10 1 5 6
*denotes playoffs only

Although Makar played the most games of any player above, he also put up the most points (as a defenseman, no less). Although he was given opportunities on the man-advantage, he also only averaged third-pair minutes in those ten games.

Charlie McAvoy was the only player on that list to have made the jump straight to the Stanley Cup playoffs up until this season. He’s the best comparable for Makar since both their NCAA teams went deep into the playoffs in those years — although McAvoy played four less games and his Bruins were eliminated after the first round.

So what do the advanced stats say? Well, they were actually fairly similar:

Playoff Numbers

Player GP TOI (Total) TOI (ES) CF% PDO SH% oZS% dZS% TK GV
Player GP TOI (Total) TOI (ES) CF% PDO SH% oZS% dZS% TK GV
Charlie McAvoy 6 26:12 23:06 53.6 97.1 5.9 51.5 48.5 6 1
Dante Fabbro 6 12:05 12:04 52.3 105.9 9.1 61.3 38.7 2 4
Cale Makar 10 17:22 15:43 56.8 102.1 10.2 74.0 26.0 10 6
Statistics from Hockey Reference

I decided to include Fabbro because he also played a number playoff games in his first NHL season. By that standard, I could’ve also put Colin White in, but he only dressed for one playoff game that season, which isn’t the best sample size when looking at advanced numbers.

The biggest deviation between the three players is ice-time. Fabbro played significantly less minutes (though on a Predators team with a deep blueline, that was expected). Makar got time on the powerplay, but Jared Bednar still leaned more heavily on his top two pairs. McAvoy was pretty much playing on Boston’s top pair by the end of that series, and also saw significant time on special teams.

Makar’s zone starts were heavily sheltered in those ten playoff games. He had a high shooting percentage and was luckier than most of his teammates, but there’s no denying how positive of an impact he had on possession.

Beyond His Years

Bednar deserves a lot of credit here too. He put Makar in positions to succeed, easing him into game-action at first and rewarding Makar’s solid play with more powerplay and ice-time. Moving Makar from Patrik Nemeth to play him with Samuel Girard was a great decision, as the two complemented each other and were puck possession wizards together (58.14 CF%).

Makar had the occasional defensive miscue, but what player doesn’t have those? Makar didn’t look like a rookie at all; in fact, he played like a seasoned NHL pro in these playoffs. Makar’s confidence and calm demeanor made him a force at both ends of the ice. After having watched Makar play at UMass all season long, I didn’t have many doubts that he could make an immediate impact in the NHL (which he did). Even with that said, I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable and at ease he looked playing against an extremely stingy San Jose team. His confidence never wavered. He used his stick to break up scoring chances and his skating to start rushes and get back to defend the Avalanche zone.

The Sharks essentially shut down the Avalanche powerplay, so Makar didn’t really get much of a chance to try to contribute there. But for Makar, it didn’t really matter. All of his six points came at even-strength, including his primary assist on Gabriel Landeskog’s overtime winner in Game 6.

The likely reason so many were impressed with Makar’s play during the playoffs was that he made his transition look seamless. A player who ‘looks’ NHL ready doesn’t always mean he will have immediate success. But Makar was able to take everything that he did in the NCAA this past season and translate it to the NHL — in the playoffs, no less. Makar’s ten-game playoff stint was valuable learning experience, and obviously there are still some things he needs to work on. But Makar is only going to get better, and the last ten games were a great indication of what’s to come.

All statistics from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.