SAN JOSE — From a distance it looked like a pom-pom, pulsating to the beat of an AC/DC song during a stoppage in play at a Colorado Avalanche home game. Upon further inspection, it was … curiously leafy.
It was a bunch of kale. Not to be confused with Cale, as in Cale Makar, whose arrival with the Avalanche had inspired one enthusiastic fan to, uh, go green.
My guy really brought a head of kale to the game lmao pic.twitter.com/OwBwFOxesl
– Ryan Koenigsberg (@RyanKoenigsberg) April 18, 2019
“My name is now associated with a vegetable,” said Makar, who was playing in the second NHL game of his life that night in Game 4 of a Stanley Cup playoff series against the Calgary Flames. The 20-year-old defenseman said this organic prop wasn’t something he saw from the fans during his two seasons at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It’s pretty awesome, and it was pretty funny. It’s a completely new thing.”
Add that to the gargantuan list of “completely new things” that Makar has experienced in the last two and a half weeks. On April 12, he won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player, the first UMass player to ever capture it and the first underclassman to win it since Jack Eichel in 2015. On April 13, his team lost to Minnesota-Duluth in the Frozen Four national championship game, as the sophomore defenseman finished the season with 49 points in 41 games.
On April 14, he signed an entry-level contract with the Colorado Avalanche, who drafted him fourth overall in the 2017 NHL draft, one spot ahead of expected rookie of the year Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks. On April 15, the Calgary native made his NHL debut in Game 3 of the Avs’ playoff series against the Flames. He skated 14:19, and scored his first professional goal. He’d add an assist in their Game 5 win that eliminated the Flames, the conference’s top seed, and another assist in Game 1 of their second-round series against the San Jose Sharks. Makar has played five NHL games, all of them in the playoffs and four of them victories. He has three points and is a plus-4.
New team, new teammates, new coaches, new system, new living conditions, new life. All of it happening while being depended on to help challenge for the Stanley Cup.
“When I was 20 years old, I was in the minors, trying to find my way,” said Colorado defenseman Tyson Barrie. “I can’t even imagine what this is like [for him].”
It’s like a freshman joining the varsity team for the playoffs. No, that’s underselling the task: It’s like a crew of thieves getting a new wheelman the night before the big heist. They’re a family. They’ve been through all the planning, the setup, the close scrapes that got them to this point. Now some interloper parachutes in during battle and takes his place in the trenches.
“I just don’t want to mess up anything,” said Makar.
It certainly helps the transition when you’re one of the best defensive prospects in hockey — and immediately deliver on that promise.
In March, ESPN’s Chris Peters called Makar “an elite skater with high-end puck skills and excellent distribution skills” as well as “a one-man transition who can get up the ice as fast as anybody outside of the NHL right now.” He was ranked as the No. 1 NHL-affiliated prospect, a list that included every drafted player that wasn’t currently in the league. Others have noted that his hockey IQ was just as impressive as his skill set.
That Makar would make an impact eventually for the Avalanche was predictable, as he’s been chatted up as a cornerstone player for the defense corps for some time. That he could join the team during a playoff round and make that impact was the mystery.
“You’re always cautious about it,” said Colorado coach Jared Bednar.
Bednar said the success of other recent college-to-pros transitions like Quinn Hughes of the Canucks and Dante Fabbro of the Predators made him feel a bit more assured that Makar could fit in. “You watch him play and the impact he’s had on games, especially in college the last couple of years, and then you watch some of the other players that have come out of college and make contributions right away,” he said. “That gave me confidence.”
Defenseman Ian Cole said that Makar’s abilities made the leap smoother. “I think skating is such a huge asset in today’s game. He obviously can do that very, very well. His ability to skate, move and also recover really, really helps him. But he’s a smart player, too. Much more mature than what his age and experience speak to. There are obviously things we’re working through. But he’s a great hockey player with a bright future,” he said.
What about going from a college tournament to the most arduous postseason in pro sports?
“Hockey’s hockey, right? It’s still the same sport. Yes, it’s the playoffs. Yes, the intensity ratchets up. But the fact of the matter is that it’s the same game, and you’re going to be good if you’re a good hockey player,” said Cole. “I think he has a little snarl to his game, where he’s not going to back away from physicality or shy away from going to a corner.”
That’s on the ice. Off the ice … well, it’s OK to shy away if you’re a 20-year-old in your first NHL locker room.
“I don’t want to get in anybody’s way. Everyone has different rituals, different routines,” said Makar, on integrating himself into the room. “It can be a little bit weird.”
But not completely unfamiliar to Makar. He was 16 years old when he made the leap from the Calgary Flames Midget AAA to the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, who were already in the playoffs. He ended up playing 20 games with them. Some of the lessons learned on fitting in were applied to the Avalanche. Chief among them: Let the veterans make the move.
“You know what? We’re a tight knit team. Everybody genuinely likes everybody, which is great. So it’s easy to add in another piece there,” said Cole, 30. “It’s easy when you have great leadership like ours to help players assimilate quickly, come together as a team, accept him and get him into the fold as quickly as possible.”
Captain Gabriel Landeskog joined the Avalanche for the 2011-12 season when he was 18, having been drafted second overall that summer. He noted there’s a difference between starting a season with a team, or coming aboard at the trade deadline, or what Makar’s attempting here.
“I think he’s fit in really well, but it is a little different. You’re used to guys coming in around the deadline. At that point, there’s so much time left. Your group is ready for it, ready for that new guy to come in. Now, obviously, it’s the playoffs. It’s different circumstances. But he’s come in as a student of the game, and worked hard and learned. And made plays,” he said. “It would be a daunting task to come in during a playoff series when you’re 20 years old or whatever he is. I never had any worries. We’re a welcoming group. We’re all pulling towards the ultimate goal to win. Any guy we can bring in to help us do that is a nice addition.”
Even if that guy may eventually challenge some of them for ice time. Makar projects to be the eventual No. 1 defenseman for the Avalanche, which is title Barrie currently holds.
“We’re in the business of winning here,” said Barrie. “I’ve been here a long time and people know what kind of player I am. If the time comes and someone pushes me out, so be it. That means the team is getting better. It’s great to be able to add someone that can move the puck like that. The more the merrier.”
The Avalanche actually have two young defensemen who move the puck well in Makar and Samuel Girard, who was acquired in the Matt Duchene deal in November 2017 and turns 21 next month. They’ve been paired together in the Avs’ second round series against the Sharks, and the results have been entertaining.
“It’s fun. They’re both born in ’98, and they look like they’ve been playing together for 20 years,” said center Nathan MacKinnon. “Put two great hockey minds together, and they make amazing plays.”
That was evident in their Game 2 win, when the two speedy defensemen whirled around the offensive zone, looking like they were playing the game at a different speed than the Sharks.
“We want to generate some energy when we’re out there. When you get the puck in the offensive zone, and tire them out for a bit, you can have some fun,” said Makar. “We read off each other. That’s what good teammates do. We’re both guys that want to play offense, but at the end of the day our first responsibility is playing defense. We may get hemmed in our zone at times, but it’s just a learning curve.”
Barrie’s review? “They’re going to be a nightmare for forwards to try and defend for a long time,” he said.
Even as the Avalanche are 11 wins away from the Stanley Cup, it’s hard not to consider the future. Landeskog is 26. MacKinnon is 23. Mikko Rantanen is 22. Makar and Girard are 20. The Duchene trade netted them the No. 4 pick in this year’s draft as well. Few teams are set up for tomorrow like the Avalanche. And no one in the playoffs today has added a game-changing piece like Cale Makar.
“In talking to him, you realize that the moment’s not too big for him,” said Bednar. “His skill set, his confidence … he’s certainly a guy that can help us, and he’s aware of that.”