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Cale Makar: UMass hockey’s crown jewel

(Caroline O’Connor/Daily Collegian)

In the Massachusetts hockey program’s 109-year history, 26 players have been deemed worthy of a selection in the yearly National Hockey League Entry Draft.

Of those UMass standouts, Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick has amassed the most prolific career, compiling two Stanley Cup Championships, a Conn Smythe trophy (MVP of the Stanley Cup Finals) and a silver medal in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.

Undrafted free-agent and former Minutemen captain Conor Sheary has quickly climbed the ranks as one of the most decorated UMass alumni, earning back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins over the last two seasons.

Despite the hardware, neither Quick nor Sheary began their Minutemen playing career with as much hype as current UMass freshman defenseman Cale Makar.

Makar became the highest draft pick in Minutemen hockey history when the Colorado Avalanche selected the Calgary, Alberta native fourth overall in this past June’s NHL Entry Draft.

Not only that, but Makar was also the first college hockey prospect chosen this past summer, with Minnesota Golden Gophers newcomer Casey Mittelstadt coming in four selections later to the Buffalo Sabres at No. 8 overall.

Given the woes UMass hockey has experienced for seemingly its entire existence, the attention surrounding Makar’s arrival to Amherst has been a new experience for fans of the Minutemen.

Players of Makar’s status aren’t typically signing on to middle-of-the-pack programs, let alone a team like UMass that solidified itself as a last-place squad in 2016-17 in the Hockey East Association by a long shot with a 5-29-2 record.

Boston College, Boston University, the aforementioned Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and even Providence regularly scoop up the top recruits available, and those don’t always include top-five NHL draft picks like Makar.

The Minutemen held onto their coveted gem in Makar though, and the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder isn’t regretting his decision to come to Western Massachusetts one bit.

“It’s really cool to be down here,” Makar said. “I was always really excited to come to campus and just getting here reassured me of what kind of team we have and where we’re going to go.”

As the unofficial leader of UMass’ heralded 13-man freshman class, Minutemen coach Greg Carvel has a clear idea of just what makes his prized puck-mover so special.

“His skill set is really impressive,” Carvel said. “His skating ability, his mobility, is impressive as well. The things you don’t realize until you start coaching him is how hard he competes, how intense he is and how physical he is for probably the youngest kid on the team and one of the youngest kids in college hockey. He’s mentally tough, he’s physically tough, he just combines it all and it’s pretty impressive.”

With four games already in the books this season, Makar is tied with fellow UMass freshman defenseman and San Jose Sharks draft pick Mario Ferraro with three points—all assists—and is looking forward to what this group can accomplish over a full season.

“I know there are a lot of other great players on this team and it’s going to be a team [mindset] that can carry us all the way,” Makar said. “Hopefully we’ll have a more successful season than they’ve had in the past.”

Brooks’ Building Blocks

Wind the clock back about two years, and Makar wasn’t really on anybody’s radar as a can’t-miss prospect.

Only playing three games for the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League in 2014-15, Makar didn’t garner much mainstream attention until his first complete season with the Bandits the following year.

As a 17-year-old, Makar registered 55 points in 54 games en route to Brooks’ first of two consecutive AJHL titles.

Makar followed it up with an even better sophomore slate for the Bandits in 2016-17, notching 75 points while taking home AJHL Top Defenseman, MVP and Playoff MVP honors in the process.

A dominant showing in the 2016 World Junior A Showcase for Team Canada in which Makar put up eight points in five games over the week-long tournament cemented the right-shot defenseman’s status as a surefire star, as he finished ninth among North American Skaters in the NHL Central Scouting List’s final 2017 Draft prospect list.

Minutemen freshman forward Oliver Chau was teammates with Makar in Brooks, and it didn’t take long for the Northfield Mount Herman graduate to see the special talent that was Makar.

“I had seen Cale play the year before; he was playing for Brooks when I went and visited and after seeing him play that whole weekend I think I knew that there was something special there,” Chau said. “Then seeing him at training camp, he’s just a step above everyone else.”

Hailing from Oakville, Ontario, Chau had a stellar first season with the Bandits as well, potting 35 goals and totaling 87 points while on his way to an AJHL Rookie of the Year award win.

Now roommates with Makar at UMass, Chau feels his relationship with his junior hockey buddy has become even stronger.

“I think we’ve gotten a lot closer,” Chau said. “Obviously, we’re living together and I think we’ve definitely become better friends.”

Like most that come across Makar’s on-ice game, the 5-foot-9, 170-pounder is continually blown away by what Makar brings to the rink on a daily basis.

“He’s a really quick player,” Chau said. “He’s just all over the place, in a good way. He’s always involved. I’ve never seen anyone who’s that shifty, in my playing days at least. He’s just an explosive player that does it all offensively. He’s strong defensively, he’s just the complete package.”

The Road to Amherst

Simply put, the Minutemen easily could have lost out on Makar’s services.

Even before the Avalanche made him the fourth overall pick, UMass hockey’s coaching change in the spring of 2016 held some stock in whether Makar would still honor his commitment, and suit up for the maroon and white.

When Carvel was hired to lead the Minutemen on March 29, 2016, it marked an important move in securing Makar’s spot as a member of the UMass hockey club.

“Through that whole process, through that coaching change there, I just wanted to stay loyal to UMass in general,” Makar said. “I knew they were going to get somebody great and it worked out really well with Carvel, [Jared] DiMichiel and [Ben] Barr here.”

Knowing full-well the magnitude of the situation, Carvel made sure to waste little time in reaching out to Makar, who signed on under the previous coaching staff led by John Micheletto.

“One of the first calls I made was to Cale, and then to his father,” Carvel said, who previously served as an assistant coach for the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators in the NHL. “His father was very honest, he said when the coaching change was made they wanted to see who was coming in and then they were going to make their decision. I think they were comfortable with my background as a coach, my experience I had and then with the other assistants as well. I think Cale, his dad and his family were very comfortable with the combination of the three of us personality wise, but also the ability to help him develop and help him prepare for pro hockey.”

“Carvel’s first day on the job, I was fortunate enough to get a call from him and [we] kind of just solidified our relationship from there. Right from then on, I knew they were going to be coaches that were going to communicate with me on and off, every other week. The relationship just kind of started and I thought it was the right fit,” Makar said.

The bright lights in Colorado looked extremely promising for Makar given the Avalanche’s lowly 2016-17 season in which they only managed 22 wins, good for last place among all 30 NHL teams.

However, Makar stressed his decision to continue his route through the college hockey landscape came down to a simple choice.

“I think it was just on a personal level of loyalty. I don’t think I owed them anything at that point, but I knew I wanted to stick with the program,” Makar said. “I knew that they were going to go somewhere if I saw the field of guys they were bringing in, like I said. The program was going up and obviously with Carvel, it’s going places.”

The prospect of getting physically stronger also appealed to Makar, something that isn’t uncommon of NCAA signees.

“That’s one of the main reasons why I choose the NCAA route over the CHL,” Makar said. “I want to get stronger and be able to defend bigger guys in the defensive zone and have a harder shot and so on. One less game and having more time in the [weight] room to not only get stronger, but to just get better off the ice mentally is going to be a big help for me.”

Stepping Right In

Boasting all the skill that Makar has, it’s no surprise he’s already found himself on the top defensemen pairing and first powerplay unit.

Alongside sophomore defenseman Jake McLaughlin—the two comprise the top defensive pair—the duo has started each and every game for the Minutemen this year.

Skating next to him on a night-to-night basis, McLaughlin expressed his enjoyment with playing alongside the uber-talented Makar.

“It’s been great,” McLaughlin said. “Honestly, I’ve been taking pages out of his book. He’s probably one of the best guys I’ve seen play. He’s got a great shot, really great skill level, so it makes it easier on me and makes my job a lot easier.”

Even though UMass has just played four games, McLaughlin already feels a solid chemistry has been developed between he and Makar.

“He’s obviously very young and there’s still a long way to go, but yeah definitely there’s a chemistry,” McLaughlin said. “Right now, I think we’re doing well so nothing to complain about.”

There’s arguably nobody else in hockey that gets to witness Makar as closely as McLaughlin right now, and he, like Carvel, has been really impressed with his ability to move up and down the sheet.

“I’d probably say his skating is his greatest attribute. He’s a great skater. He carries the puck up really well, he’s able to escape really well so I think just his skating [is his strength],” McLaughlin said.

How Long?

Now that Makar is with the Minutemen, the question that then jumps into everybody’s mind is how long he’ll remain at UMass.

It wouldn’t be foolish to assume that one season with the Minutemen is likely as long as the relationship will last, simply because Colorado might not want to wait too much longer to bring its prized prospect into its organization.

Though according to Makar, two years at UMass seems to be what he’s eyeing at this point in his career.

“I think ideally, it’ll be two years at UMass and hopefully take this program to new heights, and take them to more success,” Makar said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be on how I develop and where I feel my game’s at and where everybody else feels my game is at as well.”

Preferring not to look ahead into the future too much, Makar emphasized his development as being the key determinant in when he turns pro, with two years as a Minuteman appearing to be his end-date.

“I don’t think my individual goal is to be three years here,” Makar said. “I think in terms of my development as a player, I need to be ready to move on after two [years] for sure. I’ve just kind of looked at it like that and I don’t think a third year is in my mind right now, but honestly, at the end of the day you never know.”

“He’s not worried about his next step; he wants to be really good at this level. You can tell that he really enjoys this challenge and I think it’s the perfect step for him,” Carvel said. “He’s playing against physically older players. It’s as much Colorado’s decision as it is his or our’s. It’s our responsibility to help him develop and make him feel like this is the right place for him until he’s really ready to play in the NHL. Right now, it’s not that time yet but we’ve got a long year ahead of us.”

As far as communication with the Avalanche, Carvel disclosed that it’s been really good between the two parties and that they’re both on the same page as far as what Makar needs to work on. From Makar’s prospective, he said his relationship with Colorado has been good and they understand the process playing for UMass has for him as a player.

Time to Shine

Carvel has compared Makar to Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson in the past and regardless of how long he remains a cog in the Minutemen lineup, the second-year coach envisions great success for No. 16 beyond UMass.

“I think his ceiling is very, very high. He’s going to be a very effective player at the NHL level,” Carvel said. “But I think unlike a lot of offensive defensemen in the NHL, he cares about his game without the puck. You don’t always see that with guys who have such good offensive ability. He’s a very well-rounded player who has the capacity to be extremely effective at the next level.”

Despite the high praise from his coach, Makar seems more excited about the Minutemen’s potential for the rest of the season than any post-UMass playing opportunities.

“One of the things we’ve stressed this year is that there are no different classes, everybody is on the same level,” Makar said. “Everybody’s going to have a chance to get in the lineup, nobody’s written in right off the bat. In that respect, I think we could be the underdog. It’s kind of a fun role, in my perspective.”

 

Ryan Ames can be reached at rames@umass.edu or on Twitter @_RyanAmes.

 

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