Magic Makar: Avalanche defenseman turns in dominant series

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DENVER — There’s one area Cale Makar still has plenty of room for growth — his playoff beard.

Even with a little bit of a head start, the Colorado Avalanche defenseman’s rosy cheeks still shine through.

“It’s like three weeks, right?” teased teammate Devon Toews before the Avalanche swept the Nashville Predators in a first-round playoff series dominated by Makar.

“Yeah, this is probably a couple of weeks already,” Makar said with a laugh. “Hopefully we get to have a better look at (a beard) this year, what I can actually do if it’s a couple months.”

No bristling at this: His game is razor sharp.

Makar turned in one of the best regular seasons ever by a Colorado defensemen. It was quite a feat given the Avalanche’s blueline tradition, which includes Adam Foote, Rob Blake, Ray Bourque and Sandis Ozolinsh, but Makar is clearly something special.

After helping the Avalanche put away the Predators with a three-goal, seven-assist series, his 10 points are the most in league history by a defenseman through four games in any playoff year, according to NHL Stats.

“He might be the best player in the league right now,” Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon said. “He might be one of the best ‘D’ to ever play by the end of his career at this rate.”

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 First Round schedule, TV info]

The 23-year-old from Calgary is averaging 1.05 goals per game over 39 career playoff appearances, which at the moment puts him second all-time among NHL defensemen, trailing only Bobby Orr (1.24 over 74 postseason games).

“He hasn’t let up,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said of Makar, the fourth overall pick by the Avalanche in the 2017 draft. “He keeps getting better and better.”

Makar’s 28 goals broke Ozolinsh’s single-season franchise record by a defenseman. On the night he eclipsed Ozolinsh’s mark, teammate Mikko Rantanen had to inform him of the milestone.

“I sound like a broken record, but those goals go back to the team,” Makar said, insisting that individual records are “not really something I focus on.”

Same with winning the Norris Trophy, which goes to the league’s top defenseman. He’s among the finalists along with Victor Hedman of Tampa Bay and Nashville’s Roman Josi.

Josi’s 96-point season was the best by an NHL defenseman in 29 years, but the Avalanche held him to one goal and one assist in sweeping a first-round series for a second straight postseason.

Count Makar a big fan of Josi, with the two spending some time chatting at the All-Star Game and briefly again in the handshake line Monday night.

“He’s an unbelievable player,” said Makar, the 2019-20 Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year. “He pushed me a lot this season. He had one incredible year.”

The respect is mutual.

“He’s such a fun player to watch,” said Josi, who captured the Norris the same season Makar took home the Calder. “He’s so dynamic. … I love watching him play.”

Except for maybe this: Makar setting up the winning goal Monday by avoiding a check and sending a pass across the ice to an open Valeri Nichushkin. It capped the three-point night for Makar, whose sweet performance included fans throwing Skittles at him in the closing moments.

“It is what it is,” Makar said. “It’s fine.”

On the docket, rest and perhaps viewing some of the playoff action, including the Minnesota-St. Louis series, whose winner will face Colorado. The Avalanche have been eliminated in the second round in each of the last three postseasons.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Makar believes the Avs have the personnel for a long run. He has developed a nice rapport with fellow blueliner Toews.

“We just read off each other,” said Toews, who ranked first among all NHL defensemen with a plus-52 rating in the regular season. “We both want to play quick. Defensively, I think that’s the kind of side of things that doesn’t get looked at as much. I think offensively we create a lot and a lot of times we’re playing with Nate’s line and it gets easy to create offense.

“If you look back at the other end of the rink, we’re getting out of our zone really quick. We’re closing fast and using our speed and our IQ to break pucks up and break plays up and that allows us to play more offense.”

There’s this, too: Makar emerging as a vocal leader.

“He’s taken another step with his leadership in the room,” MacKinnon said. “On the ice, he’s so dominant. … We’re really excited to have him on our team, obviously.”

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    Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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    FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

    The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

    Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

    “Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

    Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

    The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”