DENVER — Cale Makar is the maestro, the conductor of this high-powered and finely tuned offence that plays at a ridiculous pace and can come at you in waves.
But unlike some of the more offensively gifted blue-liners of his and previous generations, the Colorado Avalanche defenceman also has one of the toughest tasks in the Western Conference final with the Edmonton Oilers: trying to contain the best player on the planet, Connor McDavid.
No, this isn’t a job for one individual, it takes a village (or a five-man unit) to try to keep tabs on the Oilers captain, but Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar not only doesn’t have to shelter Makar, he’s going out of his way to ensure he’s on the ice against McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Part of the reason for that is that Makar’s fluid skating and prompt decision-making are valuable assets when it comes to trying to keep up with one of the fastest players in the history of the sport — especially when the puck is on his stick.
The scoresheet will tell you that both Makar and McDavid chipped in a goal and two assists for three points in what ended up being an exhilarating 8-6 victory for the Avalanche in Game 1, but that only told part of the story.
Makar was at his best for much of the night, jumping up in the play in a responsible manner, making smart reads in all three zones, many of which led to plenty of chances being generated for himself and those others on the ice with him.
He was involved in the pivotal play of the game, the goal with 13.6 seconds that was upheld despite a coach’s challenge for offside after it was ruled that Avalanche winger Valeri Nichushkin had exited the offensive zone before Makar regained possession of the puck upon entry.
Because of the combination of mobility, vision and passing ability, Makar is a zone-exit machine who feeds the transition game.
That led a reporter to ask on Wednesday if that is an innate skill or something Makar was taught or coached to do over the years?
“A certain amount of it for sure comes natural,” said Bednar. “I'm sure he's been coached along the way as well. In order to be able to exit the zone the way he does and make the plays he does, it's not just his skating ability that allows it to happen, right?
“There's reads and deception in his game that a lot of it comes natural but there's certain reads you’ve got to make on the ice to be able to read your team's forecheck in order to know where you want to go and how you want to get it done. So I would say a little bit of both.”
Game 2 goes Thursday night at 8 pm ET / 6 p.m. MT (Sportsnet) before the series shifts to Alberta for Games 3 and 4.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Makar is just shy of his 24th birthday and he’s just scratching the surface when it comes to his potential, even though Bednar already trusts and relies on him and regular defence partner Devon Toews to play in all situations.
Because he burst on to the scene following his sophomore season with UMass-Amherst and made an immediate impact in the playoffs against the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks in the spring of 2019, it feels like Makar has been in the NHL longer than just three full seasons, after that six-game playoff cameo.
Makar captured the Calder Trophy as a rookie and is up for the Norris Trophy for a second consecutive season after amassing 28 goals and 86 points in 77 games in 2021-22.
The interesting thing to remember about Makar was that the Avalanche were ready to sign him after completing his freshman season. In an age when most young prospects want to be in the NHL yesterday, he opted to return to school so that he could add a bit more seasoning before turning pro.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he didn’t take the easiest road,” said Bednar. “He went to college and we wanted him out and he said ‘I’m not ready. I want to go back and spend another year.’
“He’s not looking for instant satisfaction. He’s the type of guy that has had the long game in mind this whole (time). It’s not (about) how good he is when he’s 18, 19 or 20, it’s how good he wants to be eventually and how much work he’s going to put into it and how much sacrifice he’s willing to endure in order to get to where he wants to go as a player long term.
On Wednesday, Bednar was asked what qualities he appreciates about Makar, being around him on a daily basis.
“It's a long list,” said Bednar, smiling broadly. “I appreciate his professionalism, his maturity, how humble he is for an elite player. 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.”
Makar is already a superstar, albeit a humble one, but the exposure for his game will only increase the deeper the Avalanche go during this extended playoff run.
While the participants in this series are focused solely on the goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals and beyond, one can’t help but wonder what a Team Canada power play might look like at an Olympic Games with Makar at the top of the umbrella and McDavid and Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon on opposite sides of him.
The possibilities for that trio on the world stage are endless, whether it’s with the man-advantage or at even strength.
When you consider how explosive each of them are, how quickly they can get up the ice and how much they enjoy sharing the puck, highlight-reel moments would be the rule and not the exception.
Dare to dream, folks. Dare to dream.
For the time being, soak in the sights of having so many dynamic players on the marquee in this series going head-to-head for the first time in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The plot twist for Makar is that he’s going up against one of the players he emulated growing up in Oilers defenceman Duncan Keith.
“Yeah, I mean, growing up, obviously he was on Chicago and I was a big Blackhawks fan and my minor-hockey team (had) kind of the same logo,” said Makar, a Calgary product who played for the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League before heading off to college. “I definitely watched a lot of him growing up. He was very dynamic. He's still a very dynamic player. He was always the first guy up in the rush, first guy back.
“He was kind of one of the guys where his speed could change the game and stuff. Him and (Brent) Seabrook were such a good pairing to learn from.”
Nowadays, Makar is that guy helping to set the standard and challenging the stereotype for how offensive defencemen are perceived, given his commitment to being a complete player.