Adding dynamic puck-moving defenceman Cale Makar to the high-octane Colorado Avalanche last season was like tweaking the engine of an Indy race car.
When something already moves that fast, it’s difficult to notice any difference.
But Makar noticed the difference in how fast he had to move, especially when he was moving up ice with forward Nathan MacKinnon.
“It was unbelievable,” Makar said. “His jump and agility is insane. His ability to stop on a dime and change directions is wild. I haven’t even mentioned his shot.”
Makar might come across as star-struck, but he is not. At 20, he carries himself like a veteran on and off the ice. He’s self-aware, curious and a quick study. You don’t have to explain the mission twice.
He played 10 NHL games, all in the playoffs, and he could win a Norris Trophy someday.
Makar, a strong skater, generated six points in those 10 games and looked like he will be the triggerman on the Avalanche’s offensive attack. He’s too smart to bite on the Norris projection, but he is willing to offer an appraisal of his game heading into his first NHL regular season.
“One of my strengths is being able to read offensive situations and knowing when to jump (into the play),” Makar said. “I think I’m right where I want to be in terms of my D zone play. But obviously there are a lot of areas that I can improve on.”
Makar has a strategy when it comes to playing with MacKinnon.
“I just try to keep up with the guy,” he said, chuckling, “and see where it goes from there.”
The former UMass-Amherst standout leads a strong group of 2019-20 NHL rookies, which also includes (in order):
- Jack Hughes, C, Devils: The No. 1 pick is an American-born difference maker who has the skill set to be a No. 1 centre and the Devils’ eventual flag carrier. He needs to get stronger, but he might be able to generate decent offensive numbers this season.
- Kaapo Kakko, LW, Rangers: There’s as much excitement about Kakko as there is about Hughes. Kakko is bigger and more physically mature, and no one would be shocked if he scored 25 goals as a rookie. The premium player drives hard to the net and has strong offensive instincts.
- Quinn Hughes, D, Canucks: He has a chance in the long run to have as big an impact on the Canucks as his younger brother Jack will have on the Devils. The defenceman can quarterback the power play and ignite offensive rushes with his skating and passing. He has a chance to become one of the league’s top American offensive defencemen.
- Ryan Poehling, C, Canadiens: He played one NHL game last season and left the building with a hat trick. Expectations for the former St. Cloud State player are high. He will need some time to adjust to the rigours of the NHL, but he will contribute instantly. He could total 15-plus goals in a middle-six forward role.
- Alexandre Texier, C, Jackets: There’s genuine excitement about Texier’s potential. The French-born forward is a high-energy, skilled performer who has expedited his climb since being drafted 45th overall in 2017. Playing in Finland last season, Texier, then 19, had 14 goals and 41 points in 55 games with KalPa. He came to North America and netted five goals in seven American Hockey League games. After he scored once in two NHL regular-season games, coach John Tortorella saw enough to use him in the post-season. He scored twice in the clinching game of the first-round sweep of Tampa Bay.
- Victor Olofsson, LW, Sabres: The 24-year-old knows how to score. In 2017-18, he had 27 goals in 51 games for Frolunda in the Swedish Elite League and he was a 30-goal scorer last season in the AHL. When he was called up to the Sabres last season and placed on a line with Jack Eichel, he had four points in six games. If given the opportunity, he could be among the NHL’s top rookie scorers.
- Joel Farabee, LW, Flyers: At 19, he seems to be forcing the Flyers to keep him on the roster. He thinks about the game from a scoring perspective. In a recent 2-1 loss to the Rangers, he attempted 10 shots, put five on goal and hit the post twice. He scored 17 goals in 37 games last season as a Boston University freshman.
- Cody Glass, C, Knights: With William Karlsson, Paul Stastny and Cody Eakin at centre, the Golden Knights don’t seem to have room for Glass. But Glass is such a smart, effective player that it’s difficult to believe that Vegas won’t find a place for him, even if it means moving him temporarily to the wing. He had 69 points in 38 games in the Western Hockey League last season and another five points in six AHL games.
- Vitali Kravtsov, RW, Rangers: He’s 6-3 and knows how to use his size effectively. Kravtsov, 19, is a former Kontinental Hockey League rookie of the year and was the league’s best teenager last season. In 2017, he became the youngest player (17 years, 61 days old) to score a KHL playoff goal.
- Sam Steel, C, Ducks: With Ryan Kesler out for an extended period, the Ducks need Steel to be ready to step in. He had a 50-goal season in the WHL and netted 20 in 53 games playing for the AHL San Diego Gulls last season.
- Martin Necas, C, Hurricanes: Necas, 20, showed his potential last season in the AHL when he netted 16 goals and 52 points in 64 games. He should be able to play 14 or 15 minutes a game and provide secondary scoring. He’s a gifted player.
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- Carl Grundstrom, RW, Kings: With five goals in 15 games last season, Grundstrom showed he can produce at the NHL level. Given the Kings’ rebuilding effort, he deserves a chance to play in the top six.
- Erik Brannstrom, D, Senators: The desirable young, smallish puck-mover came to the Senators from the Golden Knights in the Mark Stone trade. The 20-year-old had 28 points in 41 AHL games last season. He seems to be on a path to be with the Senators at the start of the season. He’s a skilled player, but he needs to prove he’s ready.
- Drake Batherson, RW, Senators: The Senators want Batherson, 21, to make the team because they need his offensive ability. He produced 22 goals and 62 points in 57 games last season in the AHL. He also totalled three goals and nine points in 20 games in the NHL.