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As the new NHL season approaches, the top prospect for the Colorado Avalanche is … once again, not with the Colorado Avalanche.
After being taken fourth overall by the Avs following a 48-point season, Cale Makar faced significant pressure during the spring to make the leap to professional hockey. The Avs were all in on Makar continuing his development in the NHL; Makar, however, was not.
It was an up-and-down freshman season for Makar’s University of Massachusetts Minutemen, much like the player himself. Makar produced 21 points (5g, 16a) in 34 games in a freshman-heavy lineup. They improved from a five-win team two years ago to a 17-win team. His season was interrupted by World Junior Championships where he racked up eight points (3g, 5a) in seven games and was named one of Team Canada’s top players alongside fellow Avalanche prospect Conor Timmins.
From there, Makar declined an opportunity to participate in the Olympics for Canada and chose instead to resume his regular routine in college. When the Avalanche came calling following the end of the Minutemen’s season, Makar would once again turn down the opportunity for something bigger and stay with his commitment to UMass.
Why? That question, and several others, are addressed by the native of Alberta in a visit with BSN Denver:
“I think after the season ended I sat down for a bit,” Makar said. “I had my mind relatively set. I think there were a few things that could have changed my mind at the time but not to the point where I would have changed my decision I think. I just felt it was in my best interests to go back for one more year at school and hopefully develop a little bit more. I’m getting to the point where I’m pro-ready but at the end of the day I still know there are some tweaks in my game on the defensive side or just off-ice physically that I need to tweak and those will be the big things this year and hopefully I’ll make the decision after that.”
One of the reasons the Avalanche became so smitten with Makar during the 2017 draft process was that maturity. His self-awareness – to resist the temptation to jump straight to the NHL and join a team that eventually made the playoffs – played a key factor in his decision to return to school.
“I definitely talked with a lot of people, whether with my family or coaches or teammates,” Makar said. “But at the end of the day, like I said, it comes down to my decision as a player and I just felt there were a few things with my game that I wasn’t fully comfortable with. When I am ready for that next step, I’m going to feel so comfortable with myself I’m going to fit in right away and not have any setbacks.”
UMass-Amherst head coach Greg Carvel agreed with Makar’s assessment of his play, previously telling BSN Denver: “He needs to get a little stronger. He can be a little stronger on the puck, and he knows that. By getting stronger, he’s going to be harder in the corners and win more of those puck battles.”
Makar’s career path has been something of a slow burn. He went to the AJHL before landing at a lower-profile college than most high draft picks. That he has become the first top-five draft pick to play a second NCAA season since James van Riemsdyk should not have come as a big surprise. Makar is insistent on taking the time to get things right before he turns pro.
“I think at the end of the day I’m going to make that jump and I’ve pursued the whole thing my entire life but I’m not rushing any situation,” he said. “I’m doing what’s best for me and ultimately what’s going to be best for this organization in the long run. That’s kind of the way I look at it and I respect both sides. I respect all of their opinions but at the end of the day I’m going to be the one to make the call and that’s kind of where I was at.”
The slower route through the AJHL led to a predictable adjustment period during his freshman year as the competition level was significantly tougher in the NCAA.
“At the beginning, I had some growing pains in terms of the league,” Makar said. “It was a lot different from playing in the AJHL where you can kind of do what you want, but the NCAA is a lot more physical and guys are on you right away. Even on our Olympic-sized ice at UMass, it’s very tight space in the D-zone as well. It was kind of an adjusting period and I think I found a groove a little bit after World Juniors when I came back to school so I can build on that this year and see where it goes.
“I had very high expectations going into my first NCAA season last year. I’m a guy that’s very tough on myself and I think I’m my biggest critic so, at the end of the day, I wasn’t pleased with my performance. I think there was a lot of stuff I can build on and a lot of little aspects I do very well but I do need to adjust as well.”
Makar’s ultimate decision to return to school means the Avalanche is willing to wait one more year for their prized prospect to break into the NHL. If there are any thoughts to it lasting any longer than this season, Carvel doused that with cold water. (He can join the Avs when his college season is over, which would likely mean at the end of the NHL regular season).
“This time next year,” Carvel said in April,” he’ll definitely be in the NHL.”