A couple of weeks ago Cale Makar stood with his fellow Team Canada players and accepted a gold medal for winning the 2018 World Junior Championship Tournament. Before returning to play with the University of Massachusetts he was involved in some controversy with Hockey Canada, or more accurately someone involved him, to what ends isn’t clear. Like any prospect his age I’m sure all he is interested in is playing hockey and as luck would have it the Minutemen had 3 games in 5 days this past week.
The Snub Narrative
Last Wednesday TSN’s Darren Dreger dropped this unattributed present on twitter:
Sources say Hockey Canada offered Dman, Cale Makar a spot on the Olympic team. However, it sounds like he has respectfully declined.
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) January 10, 2018
A half hour later Bob McKenzie followed up with his own take saying, “Just my two cents (CDN), FWIW: this kid is free to make any decision he feels is in his best interest as a freshman student-athlete. Whether it’s academic or developmental or sense of obligation to his college team or personal, it’s his call:”
This ignited a small firestorm of hot taeks and neither Hockey Canada nor Makar commented. Elliotte Friedman tried to get him on the record and put this out in his 31 Thoughts yesterday:
“Reached out to the University of Massachusetts to see if Cale Makar was willing to discuss his decision not to play for the Canadian Olympic Team. He politely declined. I think, after being a power-play specialist at the World Juniors, he felt he owed it to the school to return and play 25 minutes rather than filling the same role at the Olympics. I was also told that he felt he made a commitment and wanted to honour it. I probably wouldn’t have made the same decision myself, but totally respect his right to choose his own path.
I will say this: Some NCAA coaches were angry Canada chose to make Makar the “face of denial” when no CHL kids are on the team.”
I know that others have tried to dig into the story but this is more or less the sum total of it at this point. An unknown source leaked onto social media by Dreger, a comment from McKenzie that is obliquely sympathetic and some speculative justification from Friedge. Since there’s zero upside for either side to comment publicly, this is what we’re left with.
Everyone’s got a narrative on this, you do too I’m sure, so here’s mine:
Makar had a very good WJC tournament despite, in my opinion, getting jerked around by the coaching staff. He was voted a Tournament All-Star by the media, one of the Top 3 Players on the team (along with brother Avs prospect Conor Timmins) by the coaching staff and was the top scoring defenseman (3G/5A in 7 games) despite playing the fewest minutes. The reasons for benching him in favor of others that consistently laid eggs don’t sit well with me and I doubt they do with him either. The achievements are nice but knowing deep down that the staff didn’t trust him to play regularly is a blow to his perceived talent. Asking him to deal with that again is an insult, not an honor. Whoever is throwing shade on his declining another week of bullshit should be ashamed for making a 19 year old kid a de facto scapegoat for far-reaching issues he has no part of.
The Hockey Narrative
Luckily for us, and more importantly him, Makar was back in action with UMass this weekend in Vermont and last night in Maine. It turned out to be his most productive 3 game stretch of the season so far, a good sign since he’s been away from the team for the past 5 weeks. Even more luckily for us, all 3 games were available to watch legally without much hassle.
Friday night Brooks started off hot with yet another highlight reel goal 3:16 into the game. Yes, it was on the power play but that’s where the money’s made in college hockey. He ended up with a season high 7 shots on goal in the 2-2 tie (yes, they still do ties).
Saturday in the rematch, the Minutemen cruised to a 6-3 victory. Makar assisted on the 1st goal and scored the 5th as an insurance goal late in the 3rd period. Only 5 shots on goal this time, which is still pretty stout.
Last night they traveled to Orono to face the Maine Black Bears and flat out dominated. Unfortunately they lost 3-1 anyway despite a shot attempt advantage around 62%. Makar had an assist on the only goal late in the game and matched his season high with 7 shots again.
A pretty fair week overall with 2 goals, 2 assists, 19 shots and even 8 blocks to boot. I’d say he transitioned back to the NCAA quite adroitly.
What I’m seeing now is a player that’s right on the cusp of getting all that’s possible out of this level of play and is ready to move on. Lots of times I’ll say this about a prospect and inevitably someone will ask – if he’s so ready for promotion, why isn’t he dominating? It’s a fair question, the answer is that players really don’t dominate in minor/amateur hockey, teams do. The NCAA teams are well coached and unlike most junior teams are experienced enough to have discipline. They play a system game proficiently which makes it difficult for any one player to take over.
As far as UMass goes they’re a mid-pack team in a reasonably good conference but they lack skill and creativity outside of Makar, fellow NHL draft pick Mario Ferraro and a couple others. They’re a young team with a decent chance of improving but not by much. If Makar is going to raise his game from what it is now he’s going to need better players around him. Offensively, many aspects of his game are NHL ready and he’s only being limited by his teammates, on the one hand by their finishing ability and on the other by their reluctance or inability to involve him in the play more from the point. Defensively, he has some strengths but definitely still has some flaws. I like the way he thinks the game in the d-zone but physical play and general execution needs work. For the remainder of his NCAA season I’d like to see improvement in those areas. There’s nothing there that would disqualify him from turning pro or signing an Amateur Try-Out with San Antonio in March but better is better and it needs to get done.
/ / / / / /
Makar’s a good person, and loyal. He could have ditched UMass after his star rose in the rankings and he got drafted but he didn’t. Perhaps that played into declining Hockey Canada’s invitation to play in Pyeongchang, perhaps it didn’t. Regardless, he stayed the course for the school that had faith in him before the rest and I like that about him. He’s definitely grown as a hockey player this season, I look back at his NCAA debut in Arizona last fall and there is clear improvement. If the plan all along was to prepare him for playing professional hockey by next fall at the latest then he’s been on a perfect path.