Avalanche work to get the best out of Cale Makar without burning it out

There’s nothing wrong with Cale Douglas Makar. He’s still the same player. It’s just that he has to be a different version of whoever won the Conn Smythe, Norris Trophy and Stanley Cup in a matter of weeks last season.

Today, the Colorado Avalanche is more of an infirmary than a juggernaut. A year ago, they topped the Central Division standings with the best record in the Western Conference with 38 games. This year, they’re two points away from last wildcard spot (despite having games in hand). That’s not to say the Avs can’t repeat themselves as cup winners. But repeating means making everyone healthy, and there’s no real timetable for when that might happen.

This means that countermeasures must be taken. Giving Makar more minutes is one of them. Like almost two full minutes more per game compared to last season. As a result, he leads the league in minutes played while also taking on additional responsibilities that others may not realize.

Makar is still omnipresent. 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, hesitations, toe-drags, and the other things he does to manipulate an opponent on the fly.

Everything that makes Makar an imminent threat is still there. It’s just that he needs to be so much more that sometimes he needs to be a little less.

In other words, he has to learn to pick his spots and conserve his energy – and even Makar admits he hasn’t quite settled in as much as he would like.

“I don’t know if it’s so much because I’m not able to play the style I want,” Makar said. “Even with these minutes, great players find a way to make it happen. … I’m not sure if it’s the style change and still want to do exactly your style. It’s not up to the standard.”

Anyone who knows Makar knows that he is self-critical. His current dilemma is how to find the most effective way to do his best while helping the Avalanche win. That requires juggling what it means to play 27+ minutes per game, leading your team in 5-on-5 ice times, finishing second in both shorthanded and power-play minutes while beating Colorado with quartered to the man advantage.

He averages 27:23 and has played so much 5v5 that he leads the team by more than 20 total minutes (largely due to Makar’s defensive partner Devon Toews missing two games). Mikko Rantanen, who has played in every game and is third in the Ice Age with the Avalanche, is more than 60 minutes behind Makar.

Makar’s minutes have gradually increased since entering the league. So his responsibility. He has lived up to expectations of being a top pairing defender who can ease the power play. Now he’s also a penalty killer, needing just 38 games to surpass his penalties last season (107-28 in 77 games).

What he accomplished in his first three games in January exemplifies what it means to be Makar at the moment. He averaged 30:26 ice time while posting 11 minutes on penalties plus an additional 16 minutes on the power play. Meanwhile, they tried to help the Avs end a five-game losing streak that almost turned into a six-game slip until they bounced back from a two-goal deficit and a 3-2 overtime win on Saturday scored against the Edmonton Oilers.

Against Edmonton, Makar set up Colorado’s first goal, then received the puck in the Colorado zone, shot through the neutral zone and fired a wrister for the game winner. He finished with 33:09 on ice time while playing 5:58 on penalties 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 how the season has gone with injuries and how we had a December where we played playoff hockey every day without a break and practiced on different days… I don’t think about it. But when I’m tired, I think about the different areas where I couldn’t try as hard and still play.

His self-critical nature means Makar is always trying to find answers to whatever challenges he faces. So when it comes to learning how (and when) to expend energy, he’s still trying to find the perfect balance. But he has a plan to follow, courtesy of Toews.

Makar said he leaned on Toews when it came to picking and picking the right moments in the game to be more aggressive while also logging heavy minutes. Toews said the goal for himself and Makar is to defend hard and well, but find ways to contribute beyond what they do in the defending zone.

“I think the way we’re able to hold our gaps and stay in the guys’ faces early gives us more success later on,” Toews said. “If he stays up with a guy, I can 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 bit with how we defend.”

Toews said what helped him become more selective was the nuances of the Avalanche’s defensive structure. He said the Avs system allows defenders to be creative and read the situation with the understanding that each blueliner might have a different take on the read to be made.

For this reason, the defenders of the Avs are given a liberty. You can use that freedom to be selective and know when to conserve energy and when to be more aggressive, Toews said.

Not every game is the same. Toews said there are some games he and Makar will play longer than 28 or 29 minutes that will feel good. But there are also games where they play maybe 23 or 24 minutes and feel like they need four days off.

“I think you look at our line-up and what we’ve had to deal with due to injury, we have the freedom to do that [jump into the rush] but we don’t feel the need or there don’t come times when we have to play in a hurry,” Toews said of a chance because we don’t have the offensive weapons every night and we take that with pride when it comes to making the top- to close lines of other teams.”

How much of an impact has injury had on the Avalanche’s season? Short answer: many. They were without center Nathan MacKinnon and Evan Rodrigues for 11 games. Defender Bowen Byram has only played 10 games, winger Valeri Nichushkin has 15 and defender Josh Manson has 21. Captain and left winger Gabriel Landeskog has not played at all after knee surgery in October, forward Darren Helm made his season debut January 2 and goalkeeper Pavel Francouz has been Transferred to injured reserve at the end of December.

It has resulted in 38 people playing at least one game for the Avalanche in 38 competitions. That’s one short of what they had in an 82-game season in 2021-22.

Because of that, Toews shared another piece of valuable advice with Makar: it’s okay to stay days away from hockey.

“A lot of guys think — especially young guys — they have to skate and on optional days they feel like they have to go because they’re young guys,” Toews said. “One thing our leadership has been preaching is if you feel like you don’t need to go out, then don’t go out. I think that’s something [Makar] has started to cope on the ice after playing so many minutes and going to the gym with what he says makes him recover and feel better.

In a way, Makar had already learned not to take work home. His father, Gary, said Cale doesn’t even have the replicas of his individual awards at his Denver home. Many of his son’s awards – the Calder, the Hobey Baker and the Norris – are in the Makar family home in Calgary.

Makar said getting off hockey means calling family and friends, playing video games, or catching up on movies or TV shows.

“He’ll call [his mom] and say you should see this thing I got at Costco!” Gary said of his son’s non-hockey activities. “We laugh because it’s perfect. … The funniest thing is that he talked to him [his mother] Laura for half an hour about buying luggage. He said, ‘Then there’s this one!’ and we’re like, ‘Okay, Cale.’”

Still, there are times when those conversations shift away from luggage and into hockey.

Gary said he could tell his son he had a great game only for Cale to tell his dad he wasn’t “that great”. Gary said his son’s need to self-assess is in large part because he knows he’s still not where he wants to be as a player.

But it’s not that there hasn’t been progress. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said he trusts Makar to play those tough minutes because he put in the work. He said Makar found ways to be aggressive versus conservative while remaining an offensive threat.

“You’re watching a guy play, when his game falters, when he hits a certain number of minutes or gets tired or has problems, I think you have to hold him back a little bit,” Bednar said. “For him and for us, sometimes out of necessity we play with him so much with some of the injuries we’ve had at the back end but he’s managed it well.”

However, having a player like Makar comes with a philosophical discussion. Because how does Bednar or any coach maximize what Makar gives to the team without breaking him?

Bednar said the team’s coaching staff, medical staff and Makar have had 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 in the team are crucial. Because of this, Bednar said he wants Makar (or any other player) to be honest with him about how they’re feeling. He said this information will allow the coaching staff to figure out the next steps.

“Cale has a maturity in that you know he’s always going to tell you the truth,” Bednar said. “He will be honest in his situation. Even if he wants to help more and feels like he’s not able to do that, you want to know and you have to pay attention.”

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