Wednesday Night Hockey: Patience, preparation part of Makar’s NHL path

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

It all began in warmups for Cale Makar.

Before he became one of the NHL’s biggest young stars, the defenseman was leaving lasting impressions on coaches in warmups.

Ryan Papaioannou, head coach and general manager of the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Brooks Bandits, first laid eyes on Makar during the Mac’s Midget AAA World Invitational Tournament. As the young blue liner prepared for a game with the Calgary Flames Midget AAA team, what he showed during warmups — his skating and ability to move the puck deceptively — was all Papaioannou needed to see to know this was a special player.

“Dynamic player with explosive speed. Very high risk and more than willing to make a play regardless of the risk/reward,” Papaioannou told NBC Sports. “He was an elite skater and the puck skills matched. We have always been an offensive-minded team, especially with our defensemen, so it was a natural fit with Cale.”

During his first year as head coach at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Greg Carvel flew out to Alberta to watch Makar play with the Bandits. Like Papaioannou, he immediately recognized how strong of a skater he was and the quickness of his hands. After one period, Carvel, who spent seven years in the NHL as an assistant coach with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Ottawa Senators, was convinced the Minutemen would be getting a player who would make a big impact on the program.

I called my staff and said this kid’s a star, he’s going to be a high draft pick,” Carvel said.

Those were prophetic words. Makar was selected No. 4 overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2017, becoming the highest drafted player to come straight out of the AJHL, and upon entering the NHL during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, immediately showed he can not only handle the highest level of hockey but also thrive in such a high-pressure environment.

Makar took his own route to get to the NHL, one that other players may have strayed from in order to reach their goal the quickest way possible. That’s not his makeup.

“He’s just so mature that he knew what the right decisions were to help him get prepared for what he’s doing now,” Carvel said. “When he arrived in the NHL, he wanted to be really prepared and I think he did it absolutely the right way.”

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The sky was the limit for Makar, even at a young age. Papaioannou saw that, and when the defenseman joined the Bandits at the end of the 2014-15 season there was no hesitation throwing him into the lineup for their playoff run, one that would see Brooks reach the AJHL final. Makar would play 20 games and record seven points.

“We really didn’t know how well he would do, but [we] certainly wanted to give him the opportunity as we saw such a high ceiling to his game,” Papaioannou said. “Some of the offensive plays he made with the puck, under pressure, showed his on-ice maturity. He was cool as could be and more than willing to show all the tools at his disposal. It was a game-by-game situation where he earned himself a spot in the lineup every night and we probably could/should have played him more that year.”

[COVERAGE OF AVS-PENGUINS BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Makar has always been a realist about his limitations. When he was drafted by the Western Hockey League’s Medicine Hat Tigers in 2013, he could have gone that route for a path to the NHL. Small and not the most physically assuming back then, he chose Brooks and the AJHL with a long-term eye on his development.

In two full seasons in the AJHL, Makar dominated, posting 34 goals and 130 points in 108 games. He helped the Bandits to back-to-back league titles in 2016 and 2017 and was AJHL MVP for the 2016-17 season.

After committing to UMass in 2015, Makar faced a big decision as his AJHL career came to an end. The Minutemen fired John Micheletto, who recruited Makar, and hired Carvel. Would he honor his commitment or look elsewhere given the regime change at Amherst?

Makar chose to stay.

“I wanted to stay loyal and see what happened, and I knew they were going to hire somebody great,” Makar said at the 2017 NHL Draft. “I think I made the right decision with sticking there because Carvel and the assistants there are going to be immensely incredible for my development.”

“When they changed coaches he could have left and gone to another school,” Carvel said, “but I think the family did the research on me and they were comfortable with my history in the NHL coaching Erik Karlsson and other elite defensemen. They felt [UMass] was a good place and allowed them to stay loyal their commitment, which was consistent to the principles of that family.”

Once Makar arrived on campus, there was an adjustment period on the ice. While anyone could notice the hockey ability he possessed, there was plenty of room for improvement in a number of areas.

“Pound for pound he was probably one of the weaker kids physically, so that needed to be addressed,” Carvel said. “He was an 18-, 19-year-old in his first year and a lot of nights we had to sit him on the bench [for a breather]. His stamina as a player and his physical maturity was a big reason, he would admit to that. That was one of the bigger reasons why he didn’t sign [with the Avalanche]. He just knew he wasn’t physically ready for the demands of an NHL season.”

The Avalanche wanted to sign Makar following his freshman season when he scored five goals and recorded 21 points in 34 games. But the desire to start his professional career was beaten out by patience, knowing that in order to have sustained success in the NHL he needed more time to develop.

That was all part of the plan.

When Makar arrived at UMass, he sat down with Carvel and they mapped out a two-year plan. Following the Charlie McAvoy model at Boston University, the head coach knew from his experience and where Makar was at in his development that by the end of his sophomore season he would be ready to make the jump to the NHL.

Makar was on board with the plan, which included an agreement that in the best-case scenario his development showed he was NHL ready by the end of his freshman year, the two-year plan would be cut down to one. Having this timeline made the process easier for both the player and coach.

It was Makar’s final year at UMass, 2018-19, when he showed he had outgrown college hockey and was ready for the NHL. As captain of the Minutemen, he led the team in scoring with 16 goals and 49 points, won the Hobey Baker Award top NCAA men’s player, and led his team to the National Title game.

As Makar’s NCAA career dwindled down to at most two games following UMass’ run to the Frozen Four, there was plenty of speculation that he would sign with the Avalanche as soon as the season came to an end. Carvel didn’t inquire much with his star player about his future plans until the final weekend of the season, and that’s when the decision was made he was ready for the next level.

Despite all that was swirling around Makar at the time, Carvel said he never saw that outside noise affect his play on the ice. Four days later after UMass fell in the championship game, Makar was an Avalanche player, and scoring in his first NHL game.

Considering how mentally strong he knew Makar was, Carvel wasn’t surprised to see his former player be impactful despite a rollercoaster couple of days in his life.

“Pressure’s only something you create within yourself and he’s the kind of kid that he knew what he’s capable of doing,” Carvel said. “He was over-ready for that level. As good a skater as he is, he was rather passive, and we feel like we helped him become more aggressive in his skating style to be up the ice more and to be on top of players and better defensively using his skating. I think you saw that through the playoffs and the early part of the season that he’s an elite skater and that he uses it to its best.”

Around UMass, Makar is used as an example of being “overripe” and “over ready” and how you can never be too prepared before moving up the hockey ladder. As an NHL assistant, Carvel saw the early years of Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, and saw the work ethic required for young players to have sustainable, impactful NHL careers. While Makar may not be at that level yet, his former coach is a firm believer he can get there.

“I think he’s a Norris Trophy winner someday,” said Carvel. “Who knows how long that takes because he’s able to produce offensively. He’s able to compete defensively and his skating is elite. To me, that’s a pretty complete player — a defenseman who can put up a point-a-game type numbers at the NHL level, but also be responsible using his feet and his strength. That will make him a really good defenseman.

“He’s a kid that believes in the growth mindset and he’ll always be looking to get better. He won’t get comfortable, and if he does he’ll hear it from somebody.”

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Avs-Pens from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa. Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live with analysts Patrick Sharp, Jeremy Roenick and NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Countdown on for debut of Seattle Kraken

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SEATTLE (AP) — Standing on the recently poured concrete that will be the club level floor inside Climate Pledge Arena, Tod Leiweke nodded and pointed toward a corner of the upper deck.

That’s where Leiweke envisions sitting sometime in the fall of 2021 when the Seattle Kraken skate out from the dressing room three floors below, hoping to be in front of a packed building waiting to welcome the NHL’s newest member.

”We’ve gotten a lot done, but now we look up and we say, hey, 12 months out, maybe less, and counting,” Leiweke said. ”This is going to get real.”

Time seems to defy definition right now thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and all the ways it has changed schedules and plans. But after Tampa Bay raised the Stanley Cup on Monday night, the countdown is truly on.

In about a year, the Kraken will gather for their first training camp in a $90 million practice facility that is the anchor of a massive retail redevelopment. Sometime in late summer or early fall 2021, the arena being built under the iconic roof that’s been part of the Seattle skyline for more than 50 years will be finished.

Eventually, the Kraken will play their first game and officially become the league’s 32nd team.

When the puck will actually drop remains unknown. The NHL may be headed toward a January 2021 start for the upcoming season and the league would still like to play a full 82-game schedule that would likely drag into the summer. But the NHL is still hoping to start Seattle’s first season on time next fall, especially since it’s planning to send players to the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

Seattle will be ready regardless, largely because of what it was able to accomplish during the pandemic, highlighted by the launch of the team’s nickname and subsequent merchandise buying frenzy. While the name remains polarizing – most fans love it or hate it – the positive reaction to the slithering ”S” as the main logo, the secondary mark that incorporates the Space Needle and the success in sales can’t be denied. In the days following the name announcement, the Kraken were the top-selling team across all sports on Fanatics.com.

”It’s a mark that is the symbol of our brand. But really a brand is made up of 1,000 different pieces that all come together to create a team brand and a feeling of purpose and a soul, and the mark was really important,” Leiweke said. ”I walked into that morning believing that people were going to like it. But I think that the reaction of the public exceeded my expectations.”

Seattle also landed Amazon as its naming rights partner for its arena. The Kraken hired Everett Fitzhugh as the first Black team broadcaster in NHL history and continued to build out their hockey operations and scouting staff.

It’s allowed Leiweke to start thinking about the actual hockey product and the day next year when the foundation of the first team will be established through the expansion draft.

”There’s a terrific amount of work in front of us, but in fact we’re on track, and we’re on plan,” Leiweke said. ”To feel that, given everything else that’s going on, is pretty amazing.”

Everyone involved expects the arena to be ready in time, especially if the start of the 2021 season is delayed. The roof that had to remain because of its historical landmark status no longer rests on temporary supports. Permanent support structures are in place, while a completely new arena is constructed underneath.

The framework of the seating sections is completed in most areas of the arena, with the exception of one corner still being used to haul materials in and out.

”By far the biggest tests are behind us,” said Ken Johnsen, construction executive overseeing the arena.

The timeline for construction was impacted by the early stages of the virus outbreak, but Johnsen said any lag and supply chain issues have been resolved.

Leiweke said dealing with construction issues is just another example of a challenge his organization needed to work through during the pandemic, and thus far been successful at navigating.

”Not to say this project wasn’t already filled with lots of ambition before all of this, but this has made it certainly more challenging and I think people have risen to the challenge,” Leiweke said. ”That’s going to be a great story of this whole thing is how people rose up to meet this challenge.”

Puck already dropped on NHL offseason that could be a frenzy

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Even before the Tampa Bay Lightning returned home to celebrate their Stanley Cup championship, Julien BriseBois was on the phone with other NHL general managers about what to do next.

He is certainly not alone in making calls.

”Although we ended the hockey season officially for the ’19-20 season (Monday) night, I can tell you we’re pretty busy here in Smashville getting ready for the draft, free agency and hopefully for a full season next year,” Nashville GM David Poile said.

There is no rest for weary runner-up Dallas, the Lightning or the 29 other teams because the NHL offseason is already under way and will proceed with at a furious pace. There have already been a handful of trades, two prominent buyouts, the two-day draft starts next Tuesday and free agency opens Oct. 9, little more than a week away.

”There’s going to be some quick moves here and some teams trying to take care of business right away,” Philadelphia GM Chuck Fletcher said. ”There might be other teams and players that might have to a little more patient for the right fit. Oct. 9, 10, 11, there might be quite a lot of free agent activity and then you might have a lull there for two months.”

Pittsburgh has already traded two-time Cup-winning winger Patric Hornqvist to Florida for defenseman Mike Matheson. Minnesota swapped forwards with Buffalo, sending Eric Staal there for Marcus Johansson. The New York Rangers traded Eric’s brother, Marc, and a draft pick to Detroit to shed salary.

The Rangers, who are expected to use the top pick in the draft on Alexis Lafreniere, continued their youth movement Wednesday by buying out franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist after the Ottawa Senators did the same last week with Masterton Trophy winner Bobby Ryan.

Add the 38-year-old Lundqvist and Ryan to an already deep free agent pool, which is complicated this year by a flat salary cap. It remains at $81.5 million because of money lost in the pandemic. Top free agents like St. Louis captain Alex Pietrangelo, fellow defenseman Torey Krug and 2018 MVP Taylor Hall might get a big payday, but there is no certainty what the market will look like given the cap and a lack of clarity about revenues next season.

”I wish I had the answer to that,” New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello said. ”Not only is this year the cap frozen, but I would anticipate that it will be likewise the next year.”

Lamoriello said he thinks there will be more free agents available in 2021, and he and Poile agree there might be more players left on the market in coming months after the initial frenzy ends.

Before that, though, things will be busy. Even Tampa Bay and Dallas have work to do after just wrapping up a season that began a long year ago this week.

To re-sign key restricted free agents Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak, the Lightning need to clear some $10 million in cap space -, and that’s not accounting for unrestricted guys like back-to-back champion Pat Maroon and three defensemen who were key additions: Kevin Shattenkirk, Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn.

The 2020-21 Lightning will look different than the group that celebrates this Cup victory.

”Teams change every year,” said veteran forward Alex Killorn, a potential trade candidate along with winger Tyler Johnson. ”That’s part of being in pro sports.”

Dallas has $15 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly, but the Stars need to squeeze in new contracts for restricted free agent forwards Mattias Janmark, Roope Hintz, Radek Faksa and Denis Gurianov, all of whom were influential in their deep playoff run.

They may have to say goodbye to 34-year-old goaltender Anton Khudobin, who is a free agent after taking the Stars to the final – unless they decide to make a surprising move like trading starter Ben Bishop, who missed most of the postseason with injury. GM Jim Nill faces a real challenge to make sure Dallas remains a Cup contender.

”With the new system, I really think the No. 1 goal – and this going to sound kind of maybe funny – but is to make the playoffs,” Nill said. ”And if you make the playoffs, you’ve got a chance to win the Stanley Cup. That’s how close the parity is.”

Lightning celebrate Stanley Cup title with boat parade

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning celebrated their Stanley Cup title with a boat parade and ceremonies Wednesday at Raymond James Stadium.

The boat parade featured forward Alex Killorn on a jet-ski with Steven Stamkos riding on the back as they held up the Stanley Cup and did laps around the boats in the Hillsborough River. The parade was followed by a public trophy celebration at the stadium with a capped attendance of 16,000 people.

“We’re excited to share this with Tampa,” Killorn said. “I know they weren’t here throughout the series and in the bubble, but this is our time to enjoy it with them because (the fans) are a big part of this team.”

Among the highlights of the celebration was a video package of the Lightning’s playoff run and a congratulatory video message from ESPN broadcaster and Lightning season-ticket holder Dick Vitale.

The players returned to Tampa on Tuesday after being in the NHL’s “bubble” in Toronto and Edmonton for the past 65 days. They were greeted at the airport by their families and held a private on-ice ceremony for friends and family.

Lightning owner Jeff Vinik said that the circumstances in which the Lightning won the Stanley Cup make it an even more impressive feat than winning in a normal year.

“This was not only a hockey Stanley Cup,” Vinik said. “This was a mental Stanley Cup to get through that period of time. Kudos to them and kudos to their families for being so supportive. That’s a long time away from home and I don’t think any of us can appreciate how tough that was.”

Which NHL teams should try to sign Henrik Lundqvist after Rangers buyout?

Which NHL teams should try to sign Henrik Lundqvist after Rangers buyout?
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With the Rangers’ long-rumored buyout of Henrik Lundqvist now official, the natural question is: “Which team will sign Lundqvist?” This, of course, assumes that Lundqvist will continue his vaunted career. Just about any hockey fan should hope that the 38-year-old keeps chugging along.

Few know what Henrik Lundqvist wants (beyond Lundqvist)

Ultimately, we can only guess where Lundqvist may sign next. We don’t know his priorities, although it seems reasonable to assume that he would emphasize the chance to win that elusive Stanley Cup.

If Lundqvist followed in the footsteps of other veteran sports stars and took very little money to chase that late-career championship, it would be understandable. After all, Cap Friendly estimates Lundqvist’s career earnings at close to $100 million.

But Lundqvist might want the best chance to play, rather than a platoon or backup situation. Maybe he’d want to stay reasonably close to New York City, being that he played for the Rangers for 15 years?

What Henrik Lundqvist brings to the table at age 38

No doubt, Lundqvist is no longer at his peak, and oh what a peak it was:

By the numbers, it’s fair to wonder what sort of goalie teams would be getting in current-day Lundqvist.

In 2019-20, Lundqvist went 10-12-3 with a .905 save percentage. That marks the second straight season in that range, as he sank to .907 in 2018-19.

According to Hockey Reference’s version of Goals Saved Above Average, Lundqvist was on the negative side of the ledger (from -4.16 to -5.21) in three of the last four seasons.

While some of those stats attempt to correct for the quality of teams in front of goalies, it’s still worth wondering if Lundqvist might enjoy a renaissance in a different situation. To be frank, the Rangers have been abysmal defensively for some time now. And, for a veteran like Lundqvist, it might be tougher to find that fire on a rebuilding team.

If you’re a contender and Lundqvist isn’t asking for the moon, maybe you can picture another glory run? Goalies are unpredictable, and Anton Khudobin was no spring chicken (34) in leading the Dallas Stars to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

So let’s consider the NHL teams who may at least consider signing Henrik Lundqvist after that Rangers buyout.

Contenders going through changes may target Henrik Lundqvist

Heading into what’s almost certain to be a turbulent off-season, Lundqvist, Khudobin, and other free agent goalies must contend with a flooded market. Teams might prefer a more established name at-or-near their prime ages (Robin Lehner, Braden Holtby) or someone with less name recognition who could deliver Khudobin-type gains (Thomas Greiss).

So, beyond knowing what Lundqvist wants, it’s up to the teams to decide if Lundqvist is their preference.

In the case of contenders, the most sensible situation would be for Lundqvist to provide insurance at a low price, while Lundqvist gets to chase that Stanley Cup. These teams stand out in that category:

  • Capitals – How cool would it be for the Capitals to sign Lundqvist after facing him in, by my calculations, 5 bajillion playoff series?* With Holtby most likely to move on, the Capitals could provide Ilya Samsonov with a well-coiffed safety net. After all those barbs and battles, it would be a blast to watch Alex Ovechkin and Lundqvist team up.
  • Penguins – A fairly similar situation. Matt Murray is a UFA who struggled badly in recent times. Like with Pheonix Copley, the Penguins might have a logjam in that scenario, as Casey DeSmith is under contract. But pairing Lundqvist with Tristan Jarry could be appealing.
  • Flyers – Carter Hart could use a backup upgrade over Brian Elliott. There would be so, so many “Lundqvist mentoring Hart” stories.
  • Maple Leafs – If Toronto moved on from Frederik Andersen, could they roll with Lundqvist and Jack Campbell? Hmm.
  • Stars – In the event that Khudobin priced himself out of Dallas, picture a very old goalie duo in Lundqvist and Ben Bishop. Lundqvist might not know what to do with himself during games when the Stars really put the defensive clamps down, honestly.
  • Blues – After employing Martin Brodeur for a few unthinkable games, maybe the Blues land Lundqvist? They traded away Jake Allen, even after Allen quietly (vastly) outplayed Jordan Binnington in 2019-20.
  • Jets – Winnipeg asked a lot of Connor Hellebuyck last season. It might be wise to find someone to ease that burden in 2020-21.
  • Golden Knights – If they trade Marc-Andre Fleury and sign Lehner, they might need a backup. This would be weird … and fun?

* – Five series.

Hopefuls who might offer more starts?

If Lundqvist wants to thread the needle between having a chance to win a Stanley Cup — but maybe a lower chance — and also maybe getting in a platoon/1B/or even starting situation, there are some scenarios.

  • Flames – Calgary’s been searching for goalie help and that extra push for some time. If it weren’t for David Rittich, the Flames could’ve pulled off the amusing scenario where maybe Lundqvist would be the backup to his former backup, Cam Talbot. But Lundqvist on the Flames would be fascinating.
  • Oilers – Another year, another situation where the Oilers face comparable goalie uncertainty to their Alberta rivals. Imagine the star power of Lundqvist on a team with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Imagine the angst if that all goes bust again.
  • Canucks – Thatcher Demko + Lundqvist rather than breaking the already-broken bank to bring back Jacob Markstrom?
  • Wild – Minnesota’s been one of the best defensive teams in the NHL. They’ve also made a ton of moves already. What if they found someone who’d actually make some stops?
  • Coyotes – If they moved on from Darcy Kuemper, maybe Lundqvist could sustain them if they play low-event hockey? Lundqvist could at least enjoy the weather, depending upon how the 2020-21 season might play out.
  • Sharks – Hey, they want to get out of the cellar, and their goaltending can only get better. Right?

Max money, minimum wins?

Let’s throw bad teams with a lot of money in this category. One could picture scenarios where the Senators, Red Wings, and other rebuilding franchises might value Lundqvist’s presence and name recognition. Lundqvist, meanwhile, might get more money and start more games.

The most devilish scenario would be if the New Jersey Devils snatched Lundqvist from their local rivals.

Marinating on that almost troll-like situation seems like a good way to close this off. Which teams would be best served to sign Lundqvist, and which destinations make the most sense for him? Do tell.

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.