BUFFALO, N.Y.--Before Cale Makar joined the Colorado Avalanche in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he was battling with the University of Massachusetts in the Frozen Four at KeyBank Center.
He signed his entry-level contract with the Avs on April 14, two days after winning the 2019 Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's top player and the morning after playing in the NCAA national championship game in Buffalo alongside his UMass teammates.
He had previous experience in the city as well, as he won the gold medal with Team Canada at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship in the exact same building. He was named to the tournament's all-star team after recording eight points (three goals, five assists) in seven games, tops among Canadian defensemen and tied for first among all blueliners.
Tonight, he is back in the same dressing room that he was in the last time he wore a Minutemen sweater. Only this time he is preparing for an NHL game against the Buffalo Sabres.
"I have had a few different memories here," said Makar. "We won World Juniors in this exact room and then lost in the championship game in the NCAA in this exact room. Lots of bittersweet memories here, probably too many for a city like Buffalo, but no its been awesome."
In April, the defenseman was thrown into the National Hockey League at the toughest time of year and he thrived. He made his debut in Game 3 of Colorado's first-round matchup with the Calgary Flames and scored his first goal on his first shot, the eventual game-winning tally.
Makar finished the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs with six points (one goal, five assists) in his first 10 NHL games while averaging 17:22 of ice time.
"It is weird, obviously this is the first time I have kind of been back since I left right away to join the team last year in playoffs," Makar said. "I mean it's a little weird walking into this room after basically just saying good-bye to everybody. It's an awesome city and it's a good rink, and it is always a good atmosphere here so I'm excited."
Prior to his time in the NHL, Makar spent two seasons with UMass after being selected by the Avs as the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. As a freshman in 2017-18, he tallied 21 points (five goals, 16 assists) in 34 games and was selected to the Hockey East All-Rookie team.
In his sophomore campaign, he led Hockey East and ranked first nationally among all NCAA defensemen with 49 points (16 goals, 33 assists) in 41 contests. He was the first defenseman in history to lead Hockey East in overall scoring and broke the UMass single-season school record for points by a defenseman.
"It is impressive when you see him step into the NHL and the skillset that he has already. I remember when I came in, I was a little bit younger, I was 18 turning 19, but my skillset wasn't even close to what Cale is at," said Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog. "It is something I have had to work on and for him, he keeps working, he keeps getting better. The sky is really the limit. He has been important for our team, no doubt. He has been real solid for us back there, not only offensively, but he shuts down a lot of trouble in the back end by just his mobility and the way he can skate."
He has continued to be a student of the game and is establishing himself as a trusted rear guard for head coach Jared Bednar.
So far this year, Makar has recorded 37 points (11 goals, 26 assists) in 42 contests and with his next goal or assist, he will break the franchise record for the most points by a rookie defenseman in a single season. He is currently tied with Bruce Bell, who had 37 poionts for Quebec in 1984-85.
Video: STL@COL: Makar scores to set franchise rookie mark
Makar's 37 points rank second among all first-year skaters and leads all rookies with four game-winning goals, which is a club rookie record for a defenseman. He has already set the franchise rookie record for a blueliner with 11 goals, topping John-Michael Liles' 10 in 2003-04.
"We talked a lot about him coming out last year and the impact he had for us down the stretch in the playoffs." Said Bednar. "To be able to come out this year with higher expectations, knowing what he should expect out of the league, maybe a little bit of a slow start for him, and then for him to be able to make the adjustments and kind of step up and have the impact that he has had with us in a lot of different areas, I think is impressive.
"The contributions that he has on our team--whether it is from puck moving, in and out of our zone, a transition part or even in the offensive zone, how he helps us create offense--has been spectacular… I like what he has been doing and I think there is still room for him to grow, and obviously as that happens, I think we are going to keep trying to elevate his minutes here as the season goes on."