Avalanche betting big on Cale Makar

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

In jumping from the NCAA straight to high-pressure playoff hockey, Cale Makar looked like a quick study for the Colorado Avalanche. He might need to be one, too.

From a long-term point of view, Colorado’s bold trade of Tyson Barrie makes a lot of sense. Barrie seemed on his way out being that a) he’s entering a contract year, b) Makar could conceivably check many of the same boxes as a skilled, scoring and transition-minded right-handed defenseman, and c) prospects like Bowen Byram and Connor Timmins are on the horizon.

In the short term, one of the Avs’ biggest x-factors boils down to Makar making Colorado look wise in swiftly moving on from Barrie with point B.

[MORE: 3 Questions2018-19 review I Under Pressure]

Much like the Predators counting on Dante Fabbro to absorb a significant chunk of what they’re losing in P.K. Subban, the Avalanche are hoping Makar can be Barrie-like despite a mere 174 minutes of NHL playing time.

That’s not to say that the Avs are being outrageous. After all, playoff play is where flaws get magnified, yet Makar instead had people raving, including teammate Nathan MacKinnon raving during Round 2, as NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika reported on May 3.

“He looks so comfortable,” MacKinnon said. “He’s probably one of our best defensemen already. He controls the play. He’s great defensively. He’s got a good stick and blocks shots and does everything really well. He gaps up really well because of his feet. In the [offensive] zone, he’s always pinching, because he knows he can get back if he gets chipped by. So it’s impressive.”

You could see how impressed the Avalanche were by how they deployed Makar in a featured role right off the bat, with his second playoff game representing an early NHL career-high with 20:06 of ice time. Remarkably, Makar scored a goal in his first playoff appearance, and looked especially deft when paired with Samuel Girard. Makar ended up with six points in those 10 playoff games, a nice mark for virtually any defenseman.

But that’s the rub: Makar’s only played in 10 playoff games, and will make his NHL regular season debut in 2019-20.

That’s simply not a lot of data to work with, as the Avs parted ways with a borderline All-Star-quality defenseman in Barrie. Contract situations and youthful prospects make that smart long-term, but what about the immediate present?

And a lot of it might fall on Makar, at least right away. Mile High Hockey’s Tom Hunter projects an Avalanche 2019-20 defensive lineup that would include Makar on a second pairing, penciling in more development time for Byram and Timmins.

As great as the Avs’ “defense of the future” looks, the present-day group might take a step back, and it could be up to Makar to make sure it’s closer to a stumble than a plummet.

Let’s not forget that, for as impressive as the Avs’ run through the West-topping Flames was, Colorado didn’t make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs by a large margin.

This is an excitingly well-run team, yet there are certain metrics that indicate that they might not actually be better than they were last season, at least right away.

There are also some risks involved. What if Nathan MacKinnon and that top line are merely mortal after two superhuman seasons? Could Philipp Grubauer crumble under the burden of being the clear No. 1 goalie?

Count Makar’s development as one of those big x-factors, as his work will factor into knee-jerk reactions about the Barrie trade as much as Nazem Kadri playing well and avoiding suspensions.

I’d personally be shocked if Makar and other Avs blueliners don’t eventually end up being big difference-makers over the long haul, but in 2019-20, things could go either way. On the bright side, Makar should be a blast to watch, even if he goes through some growing pains.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.