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: Pageau, Panarin stay hot; Blues sign Brouwer

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Three Stars

1. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. The Rangers may not be where they want in the standings right now, but Panarin has been everything they could have possibly expected him to be and more. He extended his point streak to 12 games on Wednesday night with a two-goal effort in the Ranges’ 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. Panarin has recorded at least one point in 16 of his 19 games this season and has at least two points in seven games during his current streak, including three in a row. Read all about the Rangers’ big win right here.

2. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa Senators. Don’t look now but the Senators are just a single point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs in the standings and have played in one less game. The biggest reason for the Senators’ recent surge has been a goal-scoring binge from Pageau that has seen him score 10 goals in the month of November, tops in the league. His goal on Wednesday to open the scoring in the Senators’ 2-1 overtime win against Montreal was his 13th of the season and 10th of the month. He is on track for a career year offensively. The timing could not be better for him personally as he is in the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. It will also increase his trade value for the Senators if they look to continue their rebuild by dealing him before the trade deadline.

3. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators. Goaltending (mostly from Anders Nilsson) is the other big reason for the Senators’ recent improvement, and on Wednesday it was Anderson doing his best to steal two points by stopping 35 of the 36 shots he faced against the Canadiens. It was probably Anderson’s best performance of the season.

Blues add some forward depth

The defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues made a roster move on Wednesday by signing veteran forward Troy Brouwer to a one-year contract. He spent the 2018-19 season playing for the Florida Panthers, scoring 12 goals and adding nine assists in 75 games. That move comes on the same day the team announced that forward Sammy Blais will be sidelined for 10 weeks after he was injured in the Blues’ win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night. The Blues are already playing without Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen, and recently traded Robby Fabbri to the Detroit Red Wings.

Highlight of the Night

Brady Tkachuk was the overtime hero for the Senators, finishing a great breakaway and taking advantage of a miscommunication by the Canadiens.

Factoids

  • Henrik Lundqvist earned his 454th career win, moving him into a tie with Curtis Joseph for fourth place on the NHL’s all-time list. [NHL PR]
  • Panarin’s 12-game point streak is the Rangers’ longest since Scott Gomez during the 2007-08 season. [Rangers Stats & Info]
  • Pageau just needs more three more goals in November to tie the Senators’ franchise record for most goals in a month. Ottawa has five more games this month.  [NHL PR]
  • John Carlson added another assist to his total for the season, giving him 36 points on the season. Entering play on Wednesday he and Bobby Orr were the only defensemen in NHL history that needed only 23 games to hit the 35-point mark. [NHL PR]
  • Nick Suzuki scored the only goal for Montreal, giving him six on the season. That is second among the NHL’s rookies this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Ottawa Senators 2, Montreal Canadiens 1 (OT)
New York Rangers 4, Washington Capitals 1

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.

Panarin, Lundqvist help Rangers take down Capitals

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If the Rangers are going to contend for a postseason position, their top players have to perform.

On Wednesday Night Hockey, Artemi Panarin and Henrik Lundqvist led the Rangers to a surprising 4-1 victory against the NHL-leading Washington Capitals.

Panarin extended his individual point streak to 12 games and is living up to the high-priced contract he signed this past summer. The Russian winger has 11 goals and 14 assists through 19 games in his first season on Broadway.

Lundqvist picked up his first win since a vintage performance against the Carolina Hurricanes in early November when he made 47 saves.

Rangers power play has the right ingredients

Any time you add a deadly scorer via free agency, your power play unit should improve. The Rangers have multiple weapons and a player to fill each critical role. For years they were missing a puck-moving defenseman, a net front presence and a big shot from the outside, but Jeff Gorton and his staff have assembled a roster that should excel when skating up a man.

Panarin notched two power-play goals on Wednesday from the left circle but is not the only threat when the Rangers are on the man-advantage. Chris Kreider is a quick power forward that can create havoc in front of the goaltender and Adam Fox has been able to quarterback the play from the point. Mika Zibanejad has been sidelined a few weeks with an upper-body injury, but also boasts a big right-handed shot when in the lineup.

Offseason changes looming in Washington?

The Capitals have been one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference for quite some time, but this might be their final hoorah with the band together.

Forward Nicklas Backstrom — who missed his first game of the season with an upper-body injury – and goaltender Braden Holtby are unrestricted free agents this upcoming summer and have been key pieces in recent years.

Backstrom has long been Alex Ovechkin’s underappreciated sidekick and Holtby is constantly having to prove himself with Ilya Samsonov waiting for his chance to become a starting goalie.

Washington is off to a tremendous start and a November slip up against the Rangers is not going to damage their postseason plans. But, this could be the final season the Capitals get another crack at the Stanley Cup with their core from the past decade intact.

Climbing up the record books

Lundqvist earned his 454th NHL victory and tied Curtis Joseph for 5th place on the NHL all-time wins list. He also surpassed Grant Fuhr to take sole possession of 10th place on the NHL’s all-time appearance list.

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

After year away, soldier surprises son during Rangers-Capitals

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It is often forgotten that sporting events serve as a form of entertainment. But on Wednesday Night Hockey, the Madison Square Garden crowd was reminded that life exists outside of the hockey bubble.

During the Rangers-Capitals game, a Staff Sergeant returned in surprising fashion. He had been deployed overseas for the past year and his son thought he was participating in a contest in which he won a Blueshirts jersey.

Instead of the sweater, Luke got to see his father and the emotional embrace delighted the crowd.

Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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It was probably overdue.

It probably should have happened over the summer in the wake of another postseason disappointment, and before the 2019-20 season was allowed to turn into the bitter disappointment it has been.

But when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe, they finally made the biggest change they needed to allow the organization to take the next step in its development the city — and NHL as a whole — has been waiting for it to take.

[Related: Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach]

This isn’t to say that Babcock is a bad coach (he is probably not), or that he will not find a new team in the coming months or years and find success (he might).

But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was the wrong coach for this particular team and roster, and that it was never going to get where it should be without some kind of a drastic change.

When Babcock joined the Maple Leafs for the start of the 2015-16 season it was at a time when they were at one of their lowest points in franchise history. There had been just one playoff appearance in 10 years, the NHL roster was completely devoid of talent, and they didn’t yet know who their long-term impact players would be. Babcock’s hiring was one of the cornerstones of the rebuild, and by signing him to a massive 8-year, $50 million contract it was a clear sign the Maple Leafs were willing to flex their financial muscle and spare no expense in the areas where the league could not limit their spending.

It was also at a time when Babcock’s reputation as a coach still placed him not only among the league’s elite, but probably at the very top of the mountain.

It seemed to be the right move at the right time.

But a lot has changed in the years since.

For one, Babcock’s reputation isn’t as pristine as it once was. It has been 10 years since he has finished higher than third place in his division (2010-11 season). It has been eight years since he has advanced beyond Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (2012-13). In that time there have been 28 different coaches that have won a playoff series in the league, including two (Mike Yeo and Barry Trotz) that have won playoff series’ with multiple teams.

If you wanted, you could try and find reasons for that lack of success. His team’s in Detroit at the end were getting older and losing their core players to an inevitable decline and retirement. His first years in Toronto were taking over the aforementioned mess left behind by the previous regime, and if anything those early Maple Leafs teams may have even overachieved.

All of that is true. It is also true to say that almost any other coach with that recent resume of third-place finishes and first round exits probably wouldn’t have had the leash that Babcock had. They would have been fired two years ago.

As the talent level dramatically increased in Toronto, the expectations should have changed as well. This is no longer a young team going through a rebuild where just making the playoffs is an accomplishment. This is a team of established NHL Players — All-Star level players — that should be capable of more than what they have accomplished. Not only has that not happened, but all indications were that the team was going in the wrong direction.

Last year’s Maple Leafs team won fewer games and collected fewer points than the previous year’s team despite gaining John Tavares and Jake Muzzin and getting a breakout year from Mitch Marner.

This year’s Maple Leafs team has one of the worst records in the league at the one quarter mark and has seen the once dynamic offense turn ordinary, relying on harmless point shots from defensemen.

And that doesn’t even get into the biggest issue, which was the apparent disconnect between his style and the style of the front office and roster. The Maple Leafs are built for offense, and speed, and skill, and defending by attacking and playing with the puck. Everything that came out of Babcock was always about grinding down, and defending, and you can’t score your way to a championship.

There is not any one way to win in the NHL. Some teams win with speed and skill, others win with defense. The most important thing is to play to your strength and do what you do well. The Maple Leafs are not doing that. Talk about the makeup of their defense or the way they defend all you want, but it still comes down to whether they are playing to their strengths. You can’t take a team built around John Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander and ask it to win 2-1 every night. You are wasting them by doing that and you will fail. You have to turn them loose and let them do what they do best. Babcock never seemed able or willing to trust them to do that.

Whether or not this sparks the Maple Leafs to turn their season around and go on a championship run like Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016, or Los Angeles in 2012, or St. Louis in 2019 remains to be seen. But Keefe has coached many of the players in Toronto before, he has coached them to play a certain way, and he has won with them.

Now he gets a chance to do it on the biggest stage.

Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But the worst thing that happens is they fall short and underachieve, something they were already doing anyway. At least now they get to go down taking their best swings.

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.