TORONTO — It was pointed out to Cale Makar back in September he didn’t seem at all daunted by sky-high expectations.
The defenceman had announced his arrival in the NHL some five months earlier with a string of standout playoff performances for the Colorado Avalanche after leaving college hockey.
There was already talk about the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. His name was being mentioned alongside the game’s next generation of stars.
Makar wasn’t even the least bit fazed.
“Should I be?” he said with a laugh. “I guess the only expectations that I look at are the ones that I set for myself, and I try to set them pretty high.
“It’s whether you meet them or not.”
Whatever high-water marks he pencilled in, the 21-year-old has surely exceeded them so far in 2019-20.
Heading into Thursday’s action, Makar led all rookies with 27 points, was second in both goals (eight) and assists (19), and also sat third in scoring among blue-liners across the league.
This on the heels of the fourth pick in the 2017 NHL draft being parachuted into the post-season fray when he signed with Colorado after two seasons at the University of Massachusetts.
“I just kind of blacked out the whole time,” Makar said before Wednesday’s 3-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. “You just kind of roll with it.”
Immediate NHL Impact
He scored the winner in his professional debut April 15 in Game 3 against his hometown Calgary Flames to put the Avalanche up 2-1 in a series they would eventually take in a stunning five contests against the second-best regular-season club.
Makar put up five assists in his next nine playoff outings, and has more than picked up where he left off two months into his first full season.
His teammates knew he was good. They just didn’t expect it this quickly.
“I am surprised,” Colorado centre Nathan MacKinnon. “In the playoffs he was so amazing, but I think he’s the most dynamic defenceman in the league.”
Makar has 12 points on the power play and has helped set up eight of MacKinnon’s 18 goals, including five primary assists. His snapshot is lethal, and just wait until he figures out how to add a one-timer to the arsenal.
“I haven’t seen anybody like him, and he’s only just turned 21,” MacKinnon said. “He’s almost at 30 games played and he dominates.
“He’s had some games (where) he’s the best player on the ice by a mile.”
Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar said the five-foot-11, 187-pound Makar is “the total package” in terms of drive, skating, skill, instincts, maturity and composure.
“You put all those things together and you’ve got yourself a special player,” he said. “Who knows how good he can be? The sky’s the limit.”
The funny thing is, Makar was originally a consolation prize.
Colorado backed into getting the blue-liner after losing the 2017 draft lottery and getting bumped down three notches following a dismal 48-point, 31st-place finish. Had the Avalanche picked first, there’s a good chance they would have selected Nico Hischier, who like MacKinnon played junior for the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads.
Needless to say, Colorado is OK with how things panned out.
“He reminds me of Erik Karlsson in his Ottawa days — carrying the puck, carrying the team,” defenceman Nikita Zadorov said. “It’s hard to explain how easy it is for him.”
Always Room for Improvement
And yet, Makar knows there’s still room to grow. He nearly scored on a brilliant rush against the Maple Leafs and helped set up MacKinnon’s power-play opener, but was caught on the wrong side of the puck on Zach Hyman’s equalizer from the lip of the Colorado’s crease a few minutes later.
“There’s still a lot to work on,” Makar said.
That desire to constantly improve was part of the reason he delayed his NHL arrival and stayed at UMass longer than many observers expected.
“There’s no rush to it,” he said. “After that first year I felt I still needed to work on some aspects of my game, so I went back and I did.”
Makar played just 75 times total in his two collegiate campaigns, but said sometimes too much is made of players in his situation having to transition to the grind of an 82-game NHL season.
“I’ve already played over half the amount of games I played last year in a span of basically two months,” he said. “It’s a new learning curve.
“In college you’re definitely in the gym all the time. It’s not like you’re slacking off every day and then playing on the weekends.”
Play Allowed Barrie Trade
Colorado felt so confident in their youthful defensive depth led by Makar, Samuel Girard and 2019 No. 4 pick Bowen Byram that general manager Joe Sakic traded Tyson Barrie to Toronto this summer.
Barrie got an up close look at Makar in their 10 games together and came away thoroughly impressed.
“It was almost hard to fathom,” Barrie said. “He stepped into the playoffs and was beating guys one-on-one and doing things you don’t expect for a few years.
“He was my pick for the Calder. He’s honestly got it all.”
And while rookie of the year is a real possibility, Makar also already finds himself in the race to be the league’s best defenceman.
“It’s so amazing to have someone back there that’s so dominant,” MacKinnon said. “He’s in the Norris (Trophy) running this year … not just the Calder.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Dec. 5, 2019.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press