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.”
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.”
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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.
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.