Incoming UMass defenseman Cale Makar on everyone’s minds

  • Cale Makar, who is slated to be a freshman defenseman for UMass in 2017-18, has emerged as a likely high first-round pick in the NHL draft. EMILY DUNCAN / BROOKS BANDITS

  • Cale Makar, who is slated to be a freshman defenseman for UMass in 2017-18, has emerged as a likely high first-round pick in the NHL draft. EMILY DUNCAN / BROOKS BANDITS

  • Cale Makar, who is slated to be a freshman defenseman for UMass in 2017-18, has emerged as a likely high first-round pick in the NHL draft. EMILY DUNCAN / BROOKS BANDITS

@MattVautourDHG
Published: 4/12/2017 10:12:43 PM

NHL teams, particularly those picking early in the first round are thinking about Cale Makar.

UMass hockey fans, particularly after their team’s tough 2016-17 season, are thinking about Cale Makar.

Cale Makar is thinking about... the Whitecourt Wolverines.

The highly-touted prospect’s high-ceiling future is tantalizingly close, but he’s trying to stay in the present a little longer.

He’s weeks away from being an almost-certain first-round draft pick and months away from beginning his college career. But Makar is keeping his focus on Friday night, when his Brooks Bandits face off against the Wolverines in the best-of-seven championship series for the Gas Drive Cup, given to the champion of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

“I’m trying not to focus on it. I’m putting all that aside and trying to focus on team goals right now,” he said.

Makar has been a big part of why those team goals will be possible.

The 18-year-old is finishing off an outstanding final season of junior hockey. In 54 regular season games, he had 75 points on 24 goals and 51 assists to lead Brooks to the AJHL’s top record. He was the league’s top scoring defensemen, 23 points ahead of the next closest blue-liner. In nine playoff games, he’s scored five goals and set up seven more.

His play in Brooks, a strong showing and the World Junior A Challenge and the dearth of puck-moving defensemen helped rocket Makar from a borderline first-round pick to a likely top-10 selection on June 23 in Chicago.

He’s ranked No. 9 on NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings of North American skaters (non-goalies), which made him the highest defenseman on the list.

Professional scouts are often hesitant about defensemen who are 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, unless they’re exceptionally skilled. Makar’s considerable speed and puck-handling mixed with an innate sense of how much time and space he has to work with, allows him to make his lack of size almost an asset. He’s hard to hit.

NHL teams retain draft right to college players throughout their careers. Makar was excited to be selected but eager to continue his development in Amherst.

Makar committed to the Minutemen when John Micheletto was still the coach and Makar’s stock hadn’t yet taken off.

“They were one of the first schools that approached me, and the old coaching group did a great job recruiting me,” said Makar, who followed what’s becoming a long line of Bandits to UMass. “The campus was amazing. The rink was incredible. I knew that program was on the upturn.”

When Micheletto was fired after the 2015-16 season, Makar liked UMass enough to wait to see who was hired. Around the same time, hockey pundits had begun comparing Makar’s to Erik Karlsson. The Ottawa defenseman from Sweden is similarly built at 5-foot-11, 174 pounds and a skilled offensive catalyst.

When Karlsson first came to North America, UMass coach Greg Carvel was an assistant coach for the Senators. That helped reaffirm Makar’s commitment.

“With these new coaches I couldn’t be more excited to go to UMass next season. I think Coach Carvel is the perfect coach for me. He coached Erik Karlsson when he was at Ottawa,” Makar said. “When I heard a lot of people comparing my game to his, I started watching a lot of clips of him,” We have similar tendencies.

“Knowing that Carvel was there at the start of his career at Ottawa when he was 18 and helped him develop, was pretty cool,” Makar said. “That’s one of the things I figured out pretty quick.”

Gushing doesn’t come naturally to Carvel, but he raved about the jewel of his incoming freshman class.

“He’s an outstanding player. There’s not a lot of players who pop when you watch them play. This kid pops out there,” Carvel said. “He has outstanding skill, outstanding compete. He’s going to most likely be a top-10 draft pick.”

Makar chose college over Canada’s Major Junior circuit.

“I was a little bit of a smaller guy. I did research into the college path. I thought more years of development and more time in the gym would really help me out. For development reasons, I thought college would be a better way for me,” he said. “I’ll need to gain some muscle this summer to keep up with some of the older, more physical guys in college hockey.”

There’s a good chance he’ll never be one of the older guys in college hockey.

“He’s too good of a player,” Carvel said. “He won’t be here four years.”

Makar acknowledged he had similar plans.

“The rate of how I develop on and off the ice will determine how many years I stay at UMass,” he said. “But it’s definitely my goal to move on to the NHL.”

The realization that goal could be close isn’t something he’s overlooking.

“It’s pretty crazy. Every kid’s dream is to get drafted in the NHL and play with all the best players,” he said. “I get little chills every now and then knowing I’m that much closer to achieving my goal of playing in the NHL.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage


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