- Ryan S. Clark is an NHL reporter for ESPN.
Nothing is wrong with Cale Douglas Makar. He’s still the same player. It’s just that he has to be a different version of the one who won the Conn Smythe, Norris Trophy and Stanley Cup all within a matter of weeks last season.
These days, the Colorado Avalanche are more of an infirmary than a juggernaut. A year ago, they were atop the Central Division standings with the best record in the Western Conference through 38 games. This year, they are two points out of the final wild-card spot (although they have games in hand). That’s not to say the Avs cannot repeat as Cup champions. But repeating means getting everyone healthy, and there’s no real timetable for when that might happen.
That means countermeasures must be made. Giving Makar more minutes is one of them. As in almost an extra two full minutes per game compared to last season. As a result, he leads the league in minutes played on top of taking on additional responsibilities others may not realize.
Makar is still ever-present. Just not in the way you might expect or fans might like to see. It may not come in the form of bombastic displays, dekes, end-to-end goals, hesitation moves, toe drags and the other things he does to manipulate an opponent in the blink of an eye.
Everything that makes Makar an imminent threat is still there. It’s just that he has to be so much more that at times he has to be something less.
In other words, he has to learn to pick his spots and conserve his energy — and even Makar admits, he has not fully adjusted the way he would like.
“I don’t know if it is so much the fact of not being able to play the style I want,” Makar said. “Even given these minutes, great players find a way to be able to manage that. … I’m not sure if it is the change of style and still wanting to do your exact style. It’s not up to standard.”
Those who know Makar are aware he is self-critical. His current dilemma stems from how he can find the most effective way to be at his best while helping the Avalanche win. That requires juggling what it means to play more than 27 minutes a game, lead his team in 5-on-5 ice time, rank second in both short-handed minutes played and in power-play minutes while quarterbacking Colorado on the man advantage.
He’s averaging 27:23 and has played so much 5-on-5 time that he leads the team by more than 20 total minutes (mainly due to Makar’s defensive partner, Devon Toews, missing two games). Mikko Rantanen, who has played in every game and is third on the Avalanche in time on ice, trails Makar by more than 60 minutes.
Makar’s minutes have gradually increased since he entered the league. So have his responsibilities. He has lived up to the expectations of being a top-pairing defenseman who can facilitate the power play. Now he is also a penalty killer who needed only 38 games to surpass his short-handed minutes played last season (107:28 in 77 games).
What he has done through his first three games of January exemplifies what it means to be Makar at the moment. He averaged 30:26 in ice time while logging 11 minutes on the penalty kill plus another 16 on the power play. All while trying to help the Avs snap a five-game losing streak that almost became a six-game skid until they recovered from a two-goal deficit Saturday for a 3-2 overtime win against the Edmonton Oilers.
Against Edmonton, Makar set up Colorado’s first goal, then received possession of the puck in the Colorado zone, darted through the neutral zone and fired off a wrister for the game-winner. He finished with 33:09 in ice time while playing 5:58 on the penalty kill and 6:17 on the power play.
“I think there are always different things to consider,” Makar said of his heavier workload. “But right now, the way the season has gone with injuries and how we had a December where we played playoff hockey every day without a break and different days to practice … I am not thinking about it. But when I come off tired, I think about the different areas where I could not have exerted myself as much and still been able to make the play.”
His self-critical nature means Makar is always trying to find answers for whatever challenges he is facing. So when it comes to learning how (and when) to exert energy, he’s still trying to find the perfect balance. But he does have a blueprint to follow, courtesy of Toews.
Makar said he has leaned on Toews when it comes to picking and choosing the right moments within the game to be more aggressive while still being able to log heavy minutes. Toews said the objective for himself and Makar is to defend hard and well, but find ways to contribute beyond what they do in the defensive zone.
“I think the way we are able to hold our gaps and stay in guys’ faces early gives us more success later,” Toews said. “If he’s staying up on a guy, I can go get the puck. It takes us away from playing in our own zone and allows us to play more through the neutral zone and more with speed in the O-zone and kind of free flow a little bit with how we defend.”
Toews said what has helped him become more selective are the nuances of the Avalanche’s defensive structure. He said the Avs’ system allows defensemen to be creative and read the situation with the understanding that every blueliner might have a different view of the read they must make.
Because of that, there is a freedom that is given to the Avs’ defensemen. They can use that freedom to be selective and know when to save energy versus when to be more aggressive, Toews said.
Not every game is the same. Toews said there are some games he and Makar will play more than 28 or 29 minutes and feel good. But there are also games when they may play 23 or 24 minutes and feel like they need four days off.
“I think you look at our lineup and what we’ve had to deal with injury-wise, we have the freedom to [jump into the rush] but we don’t feel the need or times don’t come about for us to play in the rush,” Toews said. “Offensively, we understand we have to play a little more defensive and a little more complete game to give our team a chance because we don’t have the offensive weapons every night and we take that with pride when it comes to shutting down other teams’ top lines.”
How much have injuries shaped the Avalanche’s season? Short answer: A lot. They were without centers Nathan MacKinnon and Evan Rodrigues for 11 games. Defenseman Bowen Byram has played only 10 games, winger Valeri Nichushkin has been limited to 15 and defenseman Josh Manson has played 21. Captain and left winger Gabriel Landeskog has not played at all after having knee surgery in October, forward Darren Helm made his season debut Jan. 2 and goaltender Pavel Francouz was moved to injured reserve in late December.
It has led to 38 individuals playing at least one game for the Avalanche through 38 contests. That’s one fewer than what they had over an 82-game season in 2021-22.
This is why Toews has given Makar another piece of valuable advice: It’s OK to take days away from hockey.
“A lot of guys think — especially young guys — they have to skate and on optional days they feel they have to go because they are young guys,” Toews said. “One thing our leadership has preached is that if you feel like you don’t need to go out, then don’t go out. I think that is something [Makar] has started to manage when he is on the ice after playing so many minutes and getting in the gym with what he feels can make him recover better and feel better.”
In some ways, Makar had already learned to not take work home with him. His dad, Gary, said Cale does not even have the replicas of his individual awards at his home in Denver. Many of his son’s awards — the Calder, the Hobey Baker and the Norris — are at the Makar family home in Calgary.
Makar said getting away from hockey means calling family and friends, playing video games or catching up on movies or television shows.
“He’ll phone [his mom] and say you should see this thing that I got at Costco!” Gary said of his son’s non-hockey activities. “We laugh because it’s perfect. … The funniest thing is he talked to [his mother] Laura for half an hour about buying luggage. He was like, ‘Then, there’s this one!’ and we’re like, ‘OK, Cale.'”
Still, there are times when those conversations shift away from luggage and toward hockey.
Gary said he can tell his son that he had a great game only to have Cale tell his father that he was “not that great.” Gary said quite a bit of his son’s need to self-assess comes from knowing he is still not where he wants to be as a player.
But it’s not like there hasn’t been progress. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said he trusts Makar to play those heavy minutes because he has done the work. He said Makar has found ways to manage being aggressive versus being conservative while still remaining an offensive threat.
“You watch a guy play, if his game drops off when he hits a certain amount of minutes or starts to get tired or running into issues, then I think you have to back him off a little bit,” Bednar said. “For him and for us, sometimes we play him that much out of necessity with some of the injuries we’ve had on the back end, but he’s handled it well.”
Having a player like Makar, however, does come with a philosophical discussion. Namely, how does Bednar or any coach maximize what Makar gives the team without running him into the ground?
Bednar said the coaching staff, the team’s medical staff and Makar have conversations about how Makar is feeling. Bednar said Makar is “a pretty honest player” and will let the team know if he needs a break.
Makar’s role and status on the team is critical. That is why Bednar said he wants Makar (or any player) to be honest with him about how they are feeling. He said having that information allows the coaching staff to figure out the next steps.
“There is a maturity in Cale in that you know he’s always going to tell you the truth,” Bednar said. “He’s going to be honest in his situation. Even if he wants to help more and he feels like he’s not in a position to, then you want to know and you have to pay attention to it.”
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