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Makar aces lessons with Avalanche in playoffs

Defenseman calmly proving he belongs during second round against Sharks

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

DENVER -- Cale Makar is still a college student. A sport management major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he is enrolled in classes in psychology, marketing and operations and management. He plans to finish this semester and eventually earn his degree.

It has been a little hard to get his homework done lately, but he has a good excuse. He's playing for the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"My professors have been so good in terms of, I'll be able to complete most of my stuff after this season's done," he said. "You don't really have much time here in the playoffs. They understand that, and they've been great."

 

[RELATED: Complete Sharks vs. Avalanche series coverage]

 

The 20-year-old defenseman has a lot to learn. But it isn't a big stretch to say that, instead of going to school, he's taking opponents to school. He has five points (one goal, four assists) in seven games for Colorado, flashing the talent that made him the No. 4 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.

In Game 4 of the Western Conference Second Round against the San Jose Sharks on Thursday, Makar made a cerebral play.

Samuel Girard, the Avalanche's other 20-year-old defenseman, chipped a bouncing pass from left to right toward the top of the right circle. With three Sharks in front of him, including veteran defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic in the shooting lane, Makar stepped up to the puck.

Another young defenseman might have tried to shoot the puck on net. Makar spotted forward Mikko Rantanen in the slot and shot the puck through traffic onto his stick blade. Rantanen redirected the puck on net, and center Nathan MacKinnon ended up batting in a rebound to give the Avalanche a 1-0 lead at 10:34 of the second period.

Video: SJS@COL, Gm4: MacKinnon bats in opening goal

Colorado went on to win 3-0 and tie the best-of-7 series 2-2, with Game 5 at SAP Center on Saturday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).

"It's amazing how comfortable he is in the first seven games of his career and being in the playoffs," MacKinnon said. "He's going to be a special player."

This, after MacKinnon raved about him a couple of days earlier.

"I can't relate to that," MacKinnon said. "He's so dominant right now, and I was never even close to being that dominant my first five games or even my first season."

That seems like hyperbole.

MacKinnon, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, had seven points (one goal, six assists) in his first six NHL games in 2013-14, though they were in the regular season. He went on to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

But MacKinnon insisted he wasn't as good then as Makar is now.

"He looks so comfortable," MacKinnon said. "He's probably one of our best defensemen already. He controls the play. He's great defensively. He's got a good stick and blocks shots and does everything really well. He gaps up really well because of his feet. In the [offensive] zone, he's always pinching, because he knows he can get back if he gets chipped by. So it's impressive."

Video: CGY@COL, Gm3: Makar scores in NHL debut

* * * 

Makar is a quick study.

On April 12, he won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as the most outstanding player in NCAA men's hockey, the fourth sophomore and seventh defenseman to be so honored since the award's inception in 1981.

The next day, he played in the NCAA championship game. UMass lost 3-0 to Minnesota Duluth, but it was the school's first title game, a huge accomplishment. Makar finished with 49 points (16 goals, 33 assists) in 41 games, third in the nation and first among defensemen in Division I.

The day after that, he signed with the Avalanche. He packed two of the three suits he owns -- the navy one and the light blue checkered one -- and boarded a plane with one suitcase and a duffel bag.

The day after that, he made his NHL debut against the Calgary Flames, his hometown team, in Game 3 of the first round. Not only that, he became the first defenseman to score his first career goal making his NHL debut in the playoffs.

Video: Avalanche rout Flames to take 2-1 series lead

And he acted like it was no big deal.

"He scores his first goal," Avalanche forward Matt Calvert said. "I would have been pretty excited, and he's just, little fist bump, here we go. That's his demeanor, and it serves him well in this situation."

It's one thing to make your NHL debut. It's another to make your NHL debut at the most important time of year. It's yet another to make your NHL debut at the most important time of year and make an impact.

It says something about Makar and the Avalanche that he has been able to do this.

"I'm sure what goes through his mind is, 'Are guys going to accept me?' " MacKinnon said. "Or, 'Are guys going to shun me because I wasn't here this year? Are the fifth, sixth defensemen, are they going to treat me poorly because I'm taking their job?' "

Makar's new teammates put him at ease, inviting him out for dinner, telling him to play his game. Since the end of the first round, Calvert and his family have housed him in their basement.

"You don't really know what it's going to be like," Makar said. "But I came into this room, and probably within the first three minutes, everybody shook my hand. It just kind of gets me in the groove right away. I felt like I was a part of the group, and that's all a credit to them."

At the same time, Makar earned respect by showing he belonged on the ice.

"If you didn't play great and he's in the lineup, I'm sure some guys would be like, 'Maybe we should let him develop a little bit and just let him watch and learn,' " MacKinnon said. "But he's been dominant, so no one has a problem.

"He's such a nice person as well. He's a very humble person. He's got a good sense of humor. I haven't known him long, but he seems like a great guy."

* * *

One of Makar's favorite books is "Mindset." Carol S. Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, writes that people with a fixed mindset, believing abilities are fixed, are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset, believing abilities can be developed.

The most exciting part for the Avalanche is Makar has tons of room for growth.

You can see his raw ability easily. Imagine when he learns the nuances of the NHL, like where the line is in front of the net, how to position his body in the corners, when to join the rush and when to stay home.

"He's going to make his mistakes, whether it's defensively or offensively, turning pucks over," Calvert said. "Those are the little things that are easy to learn. But he's got the skill, he skates well and he's just so calm. ...

"Sometimes you expect a 20-year-old coming out of college, living in dorm rooms and all that with a bunch of buddies …"

Calvert didn't finish his sentence. Did you see "Animal House"?

"But he's very mature," Calvert said. "Good manners. Good western boy."

For now, all Makar needs to do is keep the Calverts' basement clean, focus on hockey and live his dream. His homework and the rest of his belongings can wait.

"Everything that's back at school some of the guys moved into a house off campus," Makar said with a laugh. "So hopefully when all this is done, somebody can send it back home for me."

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