Cale Makar requires no introduction. Frankly, he never has.
Before Colorado‘s superstar defenseman entered household-name territory in June by earning a Norris Trophy, Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe honors in the span of a week, he was just another kid without a driver’s license whose pure talent happened to stop NHL veterans in their tracks.
It has ever since.
“When Cale was about 16, we were hosting a camp for our current pros, and some of our young prospects,” Scott Bartlett, Makar’s longtime agent, recalled. “Cale came out there in his [AJHL] Brooks Bandits helmet, and after the first skate, those [NHLers] were like, ‘Who is this guy?’ He’s just this kid with the rosy, red cheeks — he’s still got a baby face — and they’re [impressed]. These were guys playing at the NHL level and making pro money, and to have that type of knee-jerk reaction to the talent of a young kid was one of the first indicators where we really thought we had something special here.”
Don’t let the sparsely grown playoff beard fool you, either: Makar is a fully actualized NHL defenseman. And he’s having the year of his life.
The 23-year-old dominated opponents in the regular season, gathering 28 goals and 86 points in 77 games. That earned Makar a second consecutive Norris Trophy nomination and his first victory, beating out two past winners in Roman Josi and Victor Hedman.
Makar was even better in the postseason, leading Colorado to its first Stanley Cup since 2001 over the two-time champion Tampa Bay Lightning. He did that playing over 27 minutes per game, being used on both special teams and pacing the Avalanche with 29 points in 20 games. The only players who scored more points in the playoffs: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Those Edmonton Oilers superstars had their own Cup aspirations but were sent packing after Colorado’s four-game sweep of the Western Conference finals. Makar and defense partner Devon Toews were the shutdown tandem of note in that series. Draisaitl called them “one of the best D pairings in the league, if not the best.”
Makar possesses the swagger to match.
What else could have allowed for his now-famous comment at Stanley Cup media day, when Makar declared the Lightning were trying to be a dynasty, while the Avalanche were building a legacy. Mic. Drop.
On the ice, he tackled the toughest matchups in the Cup Final while recording three goals and seven points in six games. It was the final chapter of a spectacular individual run and made Makar the youngest defenseman to win a Conn Smythe since Bobby Orr and only the third defenseman — along with Orr and Nicklas Lidstrom — to win the Norris and Conn Smythe in the same season.
Makar hears his name tied to Orr’s a lot lately. The Calgary native is having that kind of year.
So how did this fresh-faced, 5-foot-11 blueliner became the NHL’s most fearsome defender? It goes back to that beginning, when Makar was just an eager teen determined to make his mark. That goal hasn’t shifted since.
“He’s going to take this Cup run and use it and put himself in a position to keep building,” Bartlett said. “It’s his growth mindset. And I think he loves the process of getting better, I think he loves the process of finding a little edge. It’s not necessarily about ‘OK, I hit this milestone and now what else can I accomplish?’ I think he’s going to continue to take steps to gain momentum.
“I fully expected him to have the type of year he did, I could see that confidence and that calmness.”
Gabriel Landeskog can’t keep a secret.
After Colorado’s captain hoisted the Cup, he was asked what other teams could do to emulate the Avalanche’s success:
“Get a Cale Makar somewhere,” Landeskog said, grinning like the cat who got the canary.
The Avalanche hit a particularly low point in Makar’s draft year, ending the 2016-17 season at a league-worst 22-56-4. After that free fall came another when Colorado tumbled to slot No. 4 in the NHL’s draft lottery.
General manager Joe Sakic looked visibly unhappy when the order was announced. But, Sakic was able to select Makar at fourth overall in 2017. The slow burn from there eventually set Colorado alight.
Makar took his time going pro, investing first in two seasons at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Colorado tried luring Makar out after one year, but his self-awareness was high even then. More work needed to be done.
“Going into college, my goal was the two-year plan,” Makar said. “There were talks about me coming to the NHL [after one year], but I felt like there were aspects of my game that weren’t quite developed enough yet [from a] defensive aspect. So, I felt like that second year would work wonders for me. I learned so much that year and grew so much on the ice as a player and as a person. It’s never a bad thing to be overripe going into a new league.”
The offensive prowess Makar wields must have come naturally. He’s as smooth and speedy on the ice as most forwards, will dismantle any opposition off the rush and can toe a line with seamless edge work.
Those skill sets blossomed prior to Makar matriculating at UMass, but that’s where he fine-tuned it all.
“As a kid, I just loved to do little running things and sprints and I feel like that translated to agility on the ice,” Makar said. “Over time, it’s just getting that power and making sure you’re comfortable with the change in direction. Speed nowadays, especially for defensemen, is so crucial. To be able to play that style at both ends of the ice is valuable.”
Makar’s decision to stay in school paid off with a standout sophomore campaign culminating in his 2019 Hobey Baker Award win as the NCAA’s top hockey talent. Two days after finishing at UMass, Makar joined the Avalanche midway through their first-round playoff series against the Calgary Flames. He scored a goal in his first appearance and finished the postseason with seven points in 10 games.
Makar was turning NHL heads in a hurry, just like he did at age 16. Sakic felt certain of Makar’s trajectory, and on July 1, 2019, he flipped one of the Avalanche’s top defensemen in Tyson Barrie to the Toronto Maple Leafs for center Nazem Kadri.
Barrie was a popular figure, and his trade sent waves through Colorado’s ranks. But it was ultimately the right move. Kadri developed into an integral piece of the Avalanche’s top-six forward group, and Makar would become a cornerstone on defense.
As for Barrie, he has since moved on to Edmonton and could plainly see why the Avalanche were satisfied handing the keys to Makar.
“He’s an amazing player,” Barrie said. “Since he’s been in the league, he’s been exceptional and it’s amazing the way he’s creating offense and still playing defense. He’s as good as they come on the back end and the way he skates and moves the puck and retrieves the puck, he’s got every tool. He’s a super impressive player.”
Before Colorado won the Cup in 2022, there was a series of setbacks.
Take last season. The Avalanche were Presidents’ Trophy winners after being the top regular-season team. They were positioned for a successful playoff push, which ended in the dull thud of a second-round exit. Same as the year before. And the one before that.
This season, something clicked. Not only for the team, but Makar too. He was a point-per-game player in 2020-21, notching eight goals and 44 points in 44 games, but even that couldn’t fully foretell what Makar could — and would — accomplish in his third season.
The Calgary native has arrived. No one will be caught off guard again.
“I’m not surprised by anything he does anymore,” coach Jared Bednar said following Colorado’s Cup win. “Because we’ve been seeing it [build] for a couple of years, but even again now in the playoffs, he’s found a way to elevate his game and really help push our team over the top. Just an incredible human being and an incredible player.”
Makar has put in the work to become so multifaceted. He might not appear physically imposing, but Makar asserts his will in other ways — and doesn’t back down from using the body, either.
“You know, [dealing with] pressure is one thing, but he seems to be able to make a play,” Bednar said. “When he’s under pressure and he’s got his back turned he just uses his skating ability, his knowledge of reading through the forecheck to be able to find it out. Cale’s not scared of physical play. He’s able to take it, he’s able to dish it out. Sometimes he elects not to and uses his skating and his stick to defend but other times he can be a real physical player. He feels pretty comfortable going back when he’s under pressure.”
To execute on his aggressive style Makar needed the right partner. Enter Toews. Sakic acquired Toews from the New York Islanders last season for a pair of second-round picks, and he has been the perfect top-pairing complement for Makar’s flash.
Toews’ comparatively simplistic style lets him fly under the radar. But Makar made sure to give Toews credit during the Avalanche’s Cup parade last month.
When Landeskog introduced Makar as the reigning Conn Smythe winner, Makar naturally deflected from his own achievement to highlight Toews for the thousands of gathered fans.
“One guy that is so underappreciated on our team and in the league — my D partner, Devon Toews,” Makar proclaimed. “Everybody give it up!”
Toews appeared at his side, and the two orchestrated a flawlessly in sync chant for the crowd.
Always in step, even off the ice.
If Makar struggles anywhere, it’s recognizing his own success.
He’ll turn personal questions aside like an approaching shooter. Any individual feats can be tied to others’ victories.
Case in point: Makar’s answer on what he was most excited to do with the Cup after winning it.
“I don’t know. Just take a picture with the boys,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that for sure.”
Makar doesn’t want to be the story. He wants to be part of the team. His response to earning the Conn Smythe was to talk about what a reward the Cup win was for Colorado’s leadership group. Makar thanked Hedman and Josi in the Norris win aftermath for motivating him throughout the season, rather than detail what the honor meant to him personally.
It’s just who Makar is. Rarely do you hear him described without the word “humble” worked in. Even now, Makar’s agent Bartlett has to encourage his client to revel in his success.
“He buys a few more expensive things [now], but I can tell it’s almost like against his character to do it,” Bartlett said. “And I remind him sometimes it’s OK to buy a nicer car or something like that. I like to say, ‘Let’s reach for the stars, but let’s keep one foot firmly on the ground.’ And I think that is his foundation that allows him to handle the situation in such a professional, humble way.”
When Makar arrived to do media availability after Colorado’s win, he brought the Conn Smythe trophy — and his brother Taylor. The younger Makar was a seventh-round draft choice by the Avalanche in 2021, and the perfect person to shed some light on his older brother’s triumphs.
“It’s insane for me to watch,” Taylor said. “He’s the hardest-working person I’ve ever known. He’s so dedicated. It’s so funny to see us grow up together, have those sibling fights, battling for a fake Stanley Cup in mini sticks. To see him finally be able to lift that, I know he’s always wanted that, and it’s something I’ve always been able to want to watch, too. I’m just so proud of him and our family is, too.”
Makar bashfully lowered his head against Taylor’s praising speech. But there’s no doubting how Makar leans on family. He frequently mentions and gives thanks for that bedrock, at a time when skyrocketing expectations could overwhelm just about any 20-something.
Sakic doesn’t see that as a problem for Makar, though.
“I don’t think anything goes to his head,” Sakic said after the Cup win. “Cale is a hard-working, humble guy. He does not pay attention to any outside noise. He deserves everything he’s getting. Such an unbelievable hockey player.”
Like it or not, Makar better get used to spotlight. Colorado will enter next season as the team to beat. And all eyes will be on Makar to replicate — and improve on — a thoroughly masterful year.
It’s a tall order, especially when the offseason is cut blissfully shorter by the spoils of victory. That likely won’t matter for Makar. His innate drive created a blue-line beast that’s determined to keep improving.
How scary is that?
“I appreciate his professionalism, his maturity, how humble he is for an elite player,” Bednar said. “And how committed he is. Those are the things that stand out to me. You’ve all seen all the production on the ice, but just a quiet competitor, great teammate. Real humble guy. Love his character, love his personality and all those things that the normal fan doesn’t see, but I’m sure [they will] as his career goes on.”