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.

The Buzzer: Panthers get last-gasp winner; Kadri, Makar lead Avs

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THREE STARS

1. Keith Yandle, Panthers

A wild game in Minnesota ended with the Panthers topping the Wild 5-4 and Yandle finishing with a goal and four points. Noel Acciari tipped home a shot with 5.6 seconds left for the win. The final period began with the game tied at two. Evgenii Dadonov put home his 22nd of the season and Minnesota scored twice to make it a 4-3 Wild lead. Then it was Vincent Trocheck tying the game with 4:08 to go and Acciari giving Florida the two points with the late winner:

2. Nazem Kadri, Avalanche

Kadri had two goals and an assist during a 6-3 Monday matinee win over the Red Wings. With his pair of goals Kadri now has 17 on the season, surpassing his total from 2018-19. His career high is 32, which was reached in back-to-back seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18 with the Maple Leafs.

3. Cale Makar, Avalanche

One of the favorites for the Calder Trophy, Makar picked up two primary assists in the Avs’ win. He’s now in sole possession of first place in the rookie scoring race with 37 points and is three helpers behind Quinn Hughes for tops among rookies. Per the NHL, Makar’s multi-point day helped him match Bruce Bell for most points in a single season by a rookie defenseman in Avalanche/Nordiques history.

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE NIGHT

• This was a pretty setup by the Red Wings for Givani Smith‘s second career NHL goal:

Nathan MacKinnon scored twice and reached the 30th goal mark for the third straight season:

Aleksander Barkov keeps doing wonderful things:

• The Wild’s pup, Breezer, took care of some business pregame:

STAT OF THE NIGHT

SCORES
Avalanche 6, Red Wings 3
Panthers 5, Wild 4

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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.

NHL injury roundup: Jets’ Lowry out 4 weeks; Schultz, Krejci near returns

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Checking in on some injury situations around the NHL…

Jets lose Adam Lowry for a minimum of four weeks

The Winnipeg Jets have won just six of their past 18 games and have been dominated in their most recent two, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks by a 12-3 margin. Not great. Also not great is the fact coach Paul Maurice announced on Monday that forward Adam Lowry is going to be sidelined for a minimum of four weeks due to an upper-body injury.

Lowry isn not a big driver of the team’s offense (only four goals and 10 total points in 47 games) but he is a good defensive forward and a big loss for a team that doesn’t have a lot of depth to begin with. As of Monday, the Jets are three points back of a Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.

Justin Schultz game-time decision for Penguins; Dominik Kahun has concussion

The Penguins could be getting one of their top defenseman back on Tuesday when they play the Philadelphia Flyers. Justin Schultz, sidelined since Dec. 17, was a full participant in practice on Monday and is not ruling out playing on Tuesday. Schultz is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer and would no doubt love to have a big second half to boost his value. In 27 games this season he has just two goals and eight total points for the Penguins. If he is able to return it is likely that either Chad Ruhwedel or Jusso Rikkola would sit.

In other Penguins injury news, coach Mike Sullivan announced on Monday that forward Dominik Kahun is going to be sidelined with a concussion that he suffered in Sunday’s come-from-behind win against the Boston Bruins. Kahun has been a great addition to the Penguins lineup this season bringing some much-needed youth, speed, and two-way play to their forward group. He has 10 goals and 27 total points in 48 games this season. Dominik Simon was also injured on Sunday, but was at practice on Monday and is considered a game-time decision for Tuesday.

Krejci back at practice for Bruins

After missing the past two games an upper-body injury, veteran forward David Krejci was back at Bruins practice on Monday in a non-contact jersey. Coach Bruce Cassidy said Krejci will “give it a go” in the morning skate on Tuesday before their game against Vegas, but there is no guarantee he can play.

Following Tuesday’s game the Bruins will have nine days off before their next game.

Starting goalie Tuukka Rask was also back on the ice on Monday and skated on his own before practice. He has been sidelined with a concussion after being hit in the head by Columbus’ Emil Benstrom. He is also not expected to play on Tuesday against the Golden Knights.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

How aggressive should Blue Jackets be at trade deadline?

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We need to talk a little more about the Columbus Blue Jackets because they are one of the most fascinating teams in the NHL right now.

Not only for their recent hot streak, but for what might still be ahead of them over the next couple of months.

Thanks to their win in New York on Sunday night, capped off with an Oliver Bjorkstrand goal with 26 seconds to play in regulation, they hold the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They are 15-2-4 since Dec. 9, while their overall record through 50 games is actually one point better than it was at the same point a year ago. Considering their offseason and the almost unbelievable run of injuries they have experienced once the season began, they are one of the biggest surprises in the league.

It all creates a pretty interesting discussion for what their front office does — or is able to do — before the NHL trade deadline.

1. They are in a position to buy, not sell

That is not up for much debate, either. This is the same team and front office that went all in before last season’s trade deadline at a time when they were still on the outside of the playoff picture. Not only are they in a playoff position right now, they are just one point back of the New York Islanders for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division.

There is also this: Their upcoming schedule through the trade deadline and end of February really softens up with only five of their next 16 games coming against teams that currently rank higher than 19th in the league in points percentage. Three of those games (two against Philadelphia, one against Florida) will be against teams they could be directly competing with for a playoff spot.

There is a chance to gain even more ground and solidify their spot even more.

2. What they need and what they have to spend

What they have to spend: A lot. The only teams with more salary cap space to spend ahead of the deadline are the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, and Colorado Avalanche. Out of that group, only the Avalanche will be in a position to buy. The Blue Jackets, in theory, could add any player that is theoretically available before the trade deadline.

What they need: At the start of the season the easy — and expected — answer here would have been a goalie given the uncertainty of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and their ability to replace Bobrovsky. After some early struggles, they have turned out to be the Blue Jackets’ biggest bright spot as that tandem has combined for the second-best five-on-five save percentage in the NHL and the third-best all situations save percentage. They have been great, and especially Merzlikins with his recent play.

What they really need now is some scoring. Getting healthy would help a lot (Cam Atkinson just returned to the lineup; Josh Anderson, Alexandre Texier are still sidelined) but they do not have a single player in the top-77 of the league in scoring (Pierre-Luc Dubois is 78th), and only two in the top-120 (Dubuois and Gustav Nyquist).

As a team, they are 24th in the league in goals per game.

Looking around the league, obvious forward rentals would include Tyler Toffoli (Los Angeles Kings), Chris Kreider (New York Rangers), Ilya Kovalchuk (Montreal Canadiens), and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Ottawa Senators). Potential trade options with term still remaining might include Jason Zucker (Minnesota Wild) or Tomas Tatar (Montreal).

3. The problem: How aggressive can they be?

The downside to their “all in” trade deadline a year ago is that it absolutely decimated their draft pick cupboard for two years. They were left with just three picks in the 2019 class (none before pick No. 108) and as it stands right now they have just five picks in 2020, with only one of them (a first-round pick) slated to be in the top-100.

While players like Texier and Emil Benstrom are good prospects, their farm system is not the deep and the younger players currently on the NHL roster (Dubuois, Seth Jones, Werenski) are players they are going to build around.

That seriously limits what they can do.

Is general manager Jarmo Kekalainen in a position to trade another first-round pick to add to what is a pretty good, but probably not great team? Is there a player available that can a big enough difference to make that worth it? If there is, that player can not be a rental. It has to be a player that has meaningful term left on their contract and can be a part of the organization beyond just this season.

Even if you assume the Blue Jackets will not be able to maintain their current hot streak (and they will cool off at some point) they have at the very least put themselves in a position where they are going to be in the playoff race with a very good chance of making it. This is also not a team in a “rebuild” mode, either. When you are in that position you owe it to your fans and the players in that room to try to win. For the Blue Jackets, it is just a matter of how much they can do and how aggressive they should be over the next few weeks.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL Power Rankings: Top rookie performances so far

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we keep it on an individual player level and dig into the 10 best rookie performances so far this season.

It has been an interesting rookie class because two of the most anticipated rookies — top-two picks Jack Hughes and Kappo Kaako) have gone through some early growing pains and have not really played their way into the Calder Trophy discussion. That is nothing to be concerned about, either. Not every 18-year-old is going to jump right into the league and make an immediate impact. Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes two. They both still have great futures ahead of them and should be stars (maybe even superstars?) in the NHL.

It has, however, been a great first half for rookie defensemen (four in the top-ten) and a couple of rookie goalies.

Which rookies have stood out the most so far this season?

To the rankings!

1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. Makar entered the season as one of the Calder Trophy favorites, and he has not only met the high expectations placed upon him, he has probably exceeded them. He is already the best defenseman on one of the NHL’s best and most exciting teams. An exceptional skater, great passer, and a lightning fast release that just looks effortless and unstoppable. He is a one-man highlight reel almost every night.

(See it here, too)

2. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. When the 2019-20 season began it was expected that a Hughes would be at the top of the rookie class. And there is. It’s just probably not the one (Jack, the No. 1 overall pick this year) that most thought would be this high on the list. For the third year in a row the Canucks have one of the league’s top-two rookies as Hughes joins their promising core alongside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

3. Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres. One of the few bright spots in yet another massively disappointing season for the Sabres. At 24 he is a little older than your average rookie, but he has been a great fit next to Jack Eichel on the Sabres’ top line when he’s been healthy. As of Monday he still leads all rookies in scoring even though he has not played in close to a month due to injury.

4. John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins acquired Marino from the Edmonton Oilers for a conditional sixth-round draft pick in a trade that few people noticed when it was announced. All Marino has done this season is help transform the Penguins’ defense into one of the league’s best. He is already a 20-minute per night player, helps drive possession, has great defensive metrics, and has helped bring back mobility and puck skills to the Penguins’ blue line.

5. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. Stan Bowman has made some questionable trades and decisions over the past few years, but this is one that he knocked out of the park. The Blackhawks acquired Kubalik from the Los Angeles Kings for a fifth-round draft pick almost exactly one year ago. He was always considered a talented prospect with offensive upside (something the Kings could use!), but he hadn’t shown a willingness to actually sign with the Kings. So they traded him. The Blackhawks were the team that pounced and added some desperately needed scoring depth. He has 21 goals on the season, with 10 of them coming over the past two weeks. Recency bias plays a role here, but he has made a huge jump in the Calder Trophy discussion from where he was even a few weeks ago when he probably was not even on the radar.

6. Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals. The Capitals’ goalie of the future should probably be getting even more playing time in the present. In his 19 appearances this season he owns a 15-2-1 record with a .927 save percentage and is currently on a run where he has won 10 consecutive decisions. He has not lost a start since Nov. 15 against the Montreal Canadiens. His play is probably making it easier to say goodbye to long-time starter (and long-time top-shelf goalie) Braden Holtby this summer in free agency.

7. Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets. Like Kubalik, he is another rookie that has picked up his play very recently. When Blue Jackets starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury, Merzlikins had yet to win a game in the NHL and had a sub-.900 save percentage. It would have been easy to write off the Blue Jackets’ playoff chances at that point. Instead, Merzlikins has helped carry the team into the first Wild Card spot (as of Monday) in the Eastern Conference thanks to an 8-2-0 record, three shutouts,

8. Adam Fox, New York Rangers. Not going to lie, I kind of hate putting him this low because I feel like it underrates the season he has had. He has been really good. But, I also think the top-four here are clearly the head of the rookie class. It is also hard to ignore how downright dominant Kubalik and Merzlikins have been recently and the role they have played for their teams. Fox was one of two key additions to the Rangers’ blue line over the summer alongside Jacob Trouba. Trouba has the big name and the massive contract, but there is no denying which player has been the better addition for — it is Fox.

9. Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes. Necas is very quietly putting together a strong rookie season. He is the fifth-leading scorer on the team and his current scoring pace would put him on track for nearly 20 goals and 50 points with strong possession numbers. Not quite enough to be a Calder Trophy favorite, but that is still a heck of a season for a 21-year-old in his first full NHL season.

10. Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens. Suzuki was the key long-term player for the Canadiens in the Max Pacioretty trade, and they are getting their first taste of what he is capable of this season. He is still a bit of a work in progress, but he has improved dramatically over the past couple of months and is currently the fifth-leading scorer among all rookies. Pacioretty is having a career year for the Golden Knights, but Tomas Tatar (the other key player in that trade) having a great year of his own, and Suzuki showing a ton of potential, it is one that — so far — has worked out well for both teams.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.