BUFFALO – For NHL scouts, Cale Makar, the slick youngster who vaulted up draft boards earlier this year, has been a known talent for years. For fans, however, it might seem like the defenseman came out of nowhere to enjoy a dynamic 24-goal, 75-point season.
That, of course, can happen when you play in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
“Unfortunately, when you’re playing in a tier-two league, you just don’t get as much attention,” said Dan Marr, the NHL’s director of Central Scouting. “But he was on everyone’s radar going into the season.”
Makar, who starred for the Junior A Brooks Bandits, wasn’t really known to the masses until a five-point performance in December during the first game at the World Junior A Challenge.
“That did a job on just further cementing him in terms of popularity with the NHL guys,” Bandits coach Ryan Papaioannou said.
Then, Papaioannou said, social media starting picking up on Makar’s exploits.
“You started seeing people tweeting that he shouldn’t be at that camp, maybe he should’ve been at the (Canadian) World Junior camp,” he said.
Makar, 18, said of his play at the tournament: “It was huge. … I knew it was going to be a big tournament if I wanted to get a little bit of exposure. I think I kind of used it to my advantage.”
By the end of his scintillating season – Makar averaged 1.4 points an outing over 54 regular-season games – he had morphed into Central Scouting’s top North American defense prospect.
He should be an early first-round pick at the NHL Draft on June 23 in Chicago. The highest drafted AJHL player, Joe Colborne, was selected 16th overall by the Boston Bruins in 2008.
Makar enjoyed perhaps the most decorated season of any draft prospect, earning league MVP, top defenseman and playoff MVP honors as the Bandits won the AJHL championship.
“He’s just continued on the path that he’s been on,” Papaioannou said. “I think the biggest thing has been people taking notice.”
Makar’s play has drawn comparisons to Ottawa Senators star Erik Karlsson, perhaps the best defenseman in the world.
“It’s very humbling,” Makar said Saturday following fitness testing at the NHL Scouting Combine inside HarborCenter. “To be compared to a guy like that, it’s very special.”
Naturally, Makar showcases an entertaining, offensive style.
“Definitely a guy you’re going to notice when he’s on the ice,” Papaioannou said. “He’s up in the play, he’s trying to make things happen. He’s obviously going to be a power play guy at the next level, tremendous speed and puck skills and really just a flashy player with the puck.”
If Makar lasts until the eighth selection – that’s a big if – he would be a very attractive option for the Sabres, who must replenish their organization with defense prospects. He said he spoke to the Sabres at the combine.
While playing in the AJHL almost certainly boosted Makar’s numbers, he dominated most nights with Brooks, a sign he might’ve thrived at a higher level.
“When you have an elite player like that, they give you the same game, it doesn’t matter who they’re playing against,” Marr said. “So he doesn’t just take off against the weaker teams.”
Like many young defensemen, Papaioannou said, Makar can improve his play away from the puck.
“But when he’s on and he’s skating and carrying the puck and making plays, there was nobody better,” he said.
Not surprisingly, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Makar had opportunities to play major junior hockey. The Medicine Hat Tigers own his rights, and he said joining the Western Hockey League club was tempting. Makar, however, wanted to keep his NCAA eligibility, so he stayed put.
He plans to attend the University of Massachusetts next season. Pro hockey can wait.
“I don’t know if I’m ready to make the jump to the NHL or AHL,” Makar said. “I think I’ll need one or two years of development in the NCAA first.”