When Cale Makar decided to go back to UMass for his sophomore season, it left many Colorado Avalanche fans disappointed. Most believed that Makar was ready to make the leap to the NHL and that another season in the NCAA wouldn't have much benefit.
Whether he was ready to turn pro or not, Makar spoke about a sense of unfinished business with his teammates. He spent the season dominating college hockey, winning the Hobey Baker Award and elevating the UMass program to a height they’ve never seen. Now, only three weeks removed from the Frozen Four Makar finds himself in the middle of the NHL’s Western Conference semifinal lining up against superstars like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns.
Through seven NHL playoff games, Makar has played amazingly well. He is now up to five points and is producing at a rate higher than veteran puck moving defenders like Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy.
Two years ago, McAvoy took the same road Makar is travelling on now. After two seasons at Boston University, McAvoy made his NHL debut in the playoffs for the Bruins. He played in only six games but it was invaluable experience for a player who is quickly turning into one of the best young defenders in the league.
What Makar is doing for the Avalanche right now is beyond what we saw from McAvoy. He’s playing with the poise and confidence you never see from a rookie defender, not even stars like Rasmus Dahlin and Miro Heiskanen. He scored his first NHL goal during the opening period of his debut with the Avalanche - and he’s only gotten better from there.
“You’re starting to see what those guys can do,” Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar told the media earlier this week. “They just control the puck up top. They don’t throw the puck away. They’re using their feet and making plays. It’s an element we’re starting to develop as a team – those guys are helping drive that. To be honest, it’s something that San Jose has. Burns and Karlsson, they’re dynamic guys that can find open space and find open nets.”
That is some high praise from the coach. Comparing Makar to some of the best in the game is a dangerous proposition but it’s not crazy.
In the second round series against the San Jose Sharks, Bednar has paired Makar with fellow 20-year-old Sam Girard and the move has paid huge dividends. They’re getting a lot of offensive zone starts so the numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, but the Makar/Girard pairing has a 56% shot share at even strength - by far the best on the team. The way they move the puck gives the Avalanche a dynamic most opponents don’t.
Makar is an elite skater and puck handler, but what puts him up into the next level is how well he thinks the game. On Colorado’s opening goal Thursday night, he and Girard were able anchor a shift on which the Sharks looked to be short handed. This wasn’t a mismatch against a fourth line either, Logan Couture, Timo Meier, Gustav Nyquist, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic were the Sharks on the ice.
The kind of awareness Makar exhibits on this play is just mind blowing when you consider he’s was only playing in his seventh professional hockey game. After Girard made an incredible play to keep the puck in, Makar was able to take the pass, fake Vlasic out of the passing lane and find Mikko Rantanen’s stick in the slot - all while having puck skills to make a perfect pass without settling the puck down first.
The whole play was simply amazing.
He’s three weeks into his NHL career, performing at a high level and getting better each game. Technically Makar isn’t even a rookie until next season and right now he has to be the early favorite to win the 2020 Calder Trophy. There are going to be growing pains - as we saw at times this season with Sam Girard - but the sky's the limit for the former fourth overall pick.
After playing like one of the worst teams in the NHL for a full two months this past winter, the Colorado Avalanche are on an incredibly improbably run. Tied 2-2 in the second round, this young team is blowing away expectations in a way that should make the other 30 teams terrified going forward. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Sam Girard are all stars that haven’t even reached the peak of their capabilities yet - add Cale Makar to that list and the Avalanche have a core that could dominate the Western Conference for a long time.
For now, Makar is just playing his part and trying to fit in with a brand new team. He’s just so talented that he can do that while also playing a major role in the playoff run. We’ve known he was going to be good for along time, I’m not sure anyone knew he was going to be this good this fast.