Cale Makar had committed to the previous coaching staff at UMass. When head coach Greg Carvel and assistants Ben Barr and Jared DeMichiel arrived in the summer of 2016, they knew they had a promising recruit out of Calgary, who liked the campus in Amherst and the competition in Hockey East.
“He was a small kid that was growing,” Barr recalled, “and you were thinking, ‘OK, this kid’s going to be an unbelievable college hockey player.’ ”
The 2016-17 season was Makar’s draft year, when he was an undersized but clearly dynamic blue liner who was developing into a possible first-round pick. He wound up going No. 4 to the Avalanche. Watching his ascension, the UMass staff was understandably nervous.
Makar hadn’t signed a national letter of intent, which binds a recruit to a program. The Minutemen won five games that season, while setting a program record for losses (29). They were among the worst teams in college hockey.
“Nine-hundred and ninety-nine kids out of 1,000 would never have shown up,” said Barr, now a second-year head coach at Maine. “A new staff that didn’t recruit you. The team was last place or close to last place for five, six years in a row. And you’re a top-five NHL draft pick. The whole year, we were just waiting for him to call us and tell us he’s not coming.”
Makar never did. All he did was show up and change the direction of the program, with help from fellow NHL prospects John Leonard, Mario Ferraro, Mitchell Chaffee, and Bobby Trivigno. UMass, which lost the national championship game to Minnesota Duluth in Makar’s sophomore year, won it all in 2021. This season, the Minutemen are third behind Northeastern and Boston University in the preseason Hockey East coaches’ poll.
At 23, Makar is arguably the best defenseman on the planet, a Stanley Cup champion, the most recent winner of the Norris and Conn Smythe Trophies, and perhaps the biggest magnet for eyeballs in the league not named Connor McDavid.
UMass was happy to have him for a year. Colorado called him right after that first season. But Makar believed UMass could help him, and he had more to give.
“That’s what he said he was going to do,” Barr said. “He said, ‘I’m coming to UMass, my plan is to be there for two years, and I want to help you build a national championship team.’ He never wavered for a second.”
The tale is well told from there. After UMass lost the 2019 national title game, Makar joined the Avalanche for Game 3 of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, against his hometown Flames. He scored in the first period of his first NHL game, and hasn’t stopped creating offense.
“Nothing fazes him,” Barr said. “He doesn’t get distracted by anything, no matter how much praise he gets, how great everyone tells him he is. He comes from the most level-headed, honest, up-front family.”
As a freshman, Makar played in the 2018 World Junior Championship. It was an Olympic year, with no NHLers in PyeongChang. Team Canada asked Makar to play. Makar declined because he didn’t want to miss a month of school for the Olympics after missing two weeks for World Juniors.
“The amount of heat he took in Canada for that was . . . ” Barr said, trailing off. He recalled picking up Makar at the Montreal airport after Canada won gold at World Juniors, to shuttle him to a series at Vermont. “I had the NHL Network [radio] on,” Barr said. “He gets in the car and they spent 20 minutes ripping Cale Makar for not playing for Team Canada Olympic team, while he was sitting next to me.
“I was going to turn it, and he said, ‘No, that’s fine.’ He just listened to it. Didn’t say a word. They were basically questioning his loyalty to his country.”
Makar shrugged it off.
“He’s the type of kid who, after they won the Stanley Cup, he texted all us coaches as soon as he got off the ice,” Barr said. “He doesn’t owe us anything. If anything, we all owe a debt of gratitude to him. His mom and dad and brothers are all the same.”
MORE MONEY ON THE WAY
Rising cap could affect contracts
Hard to not think about Cale Makar’s contract when the NHL’s salary-cap projections arrived last week.
Makar, locked in at $9.5 million through 2027, might be on his way to inheriting the unwanted title of “most team-friendly contract in the league” recently vacated by teammate Nathan MacKinnon.
In a memo to clubs, the NHL estimated the salary cap will rise by as much as $10 million over the next four seasons. Just estimates, but Sportsnet reported the league sees a cap that rises by $1 million, to $83.5 million in 2023-24, before climbing to $87.5 million-$88 million in 2024-25, and $92 million in 2025-26.
One potential sticking point in contract negotiations across the league, as evidenced by the cap projections, is how much they get baked into upcoming deals.
Consider what that could mean for Dallas rising star Jason Robertson, absent from camp and still an unsigned restricted free agent entering the weekend. Without many alterations to their cap structure, the Stars could fit him on a two- or three-year bridge deal worth between $7 million and $8 million. Is Robertson’s camp telling Dallas that an eight-year contract would be based on a salary cap that’s higher than $92 million? Approaching $100 million?
Those estimates are tied to projected revenue, and the NHL clearly feels the post-pandemic recovery is soon to be a memory. Remember, before the world changed, the NHL, like all major sports leagues with TV rights deals, was on a steep cash climb. The players know this, and deserve their cut.
Connor McDavid, making $12.5 million a year, signed his deal for 15.2 percent of the team cap limit (players can make as much as 20 percent of their team’s salary cap, though no one has come close to that). MacKinnon (league-high $12.6 million) recently signed for 15.5 percent of the cap. Based on the anticipated cap increases, Auston Matthews (UFA in 2024) could approach $14 million a year. McDavid will need a new contract in the summer of ‘26. He could set the bar once again.
Does that mean David Pastrnak is looking at, say, $11.1 million? Aside from satisfying numerologists, eight years and $88.8 million could be more in line with fair value for No. 88 . . . if the tide keeps rising, as expected.
Has Greer’s time finally arrived?
In Philadelphia, before his Bruins’ preseason debut, A.J. Greer was looking like Rocky.
“I feel very clear-minded, and happy with the way I’ve been executing,” Greer said outside the visitors’ room, a dark hoodie pulled tight to his face. “I’ve really opened some eyes and shown people I came in ready to go.”
He hit anything in orange and white that night, eventually trading punches with Hayden Hodgson. In his second preseason game as a Bruin, last Tuesday against the Rangers, Greer scored twice on heavy shots, including the OT winner.
Rubbing their eyes after a summer without hockey, the TD Garden crowd must have thought it was watching Milan Lucic resurrected. Mirage or no mirage, Bruins coach Jim Montgomery said if the roster was set after two games, Greer would be on it.
“You can’t paint tiger stripes to make a tiger,” Montgomery said. “And right now, A.J. Greer is a tiger and the stripes are already on him.”
Hey, it was a good line. Say what you will about how much preseason hockey matters, but the 25-year-old Montrealer does feel he’s on the cusp of regular NHL work.
Greer, who played at Kimball Union (Meriden, N.H.) and Boston University, couldn’t stick with the Avalanche, Islanders, or Devils. Last year with New Jersey’s AHL team in Utica, he broke out for 22-30–52 and 102 penalty minutes in 53 games.
The Bruins grabbed him on a two-year, one-way deal ($762,000 AAV) to compete for a bottom-six spot. The left winger put early heat on the likes of Nick Foligno, Trent Frederic, and Joona Koppanen.
Greer, who trains with Nazem Kadri and a competitive Toronto group in the offseason, has been open about his mental health struggles in previous stops.
He sounds like a fighter.
“I feel amazing,” Greer said before his Boston debut. “I think that working on yourself is a lot more important than working on your hands, working on your skating. Everyone goes through a lot of stuff growing up, and things have sometimes gone my way, sometimes haven’t. I’ve had to deal with it.
“Learning a lot about myself the last few years has really made me into the person and player I am today. The people I’ve dealt with since my pro career and throughout my life, this is why I’m here now. The things I went through, I persevered and worked. I was put in a situation where I had to decide, will I fold or do I give it everything I had? I knew it was in me.”
What’s in a name?
In his brief stint as a Flyers fourth-liner, Montgomery received credit for one of the best nicknames in hockey. After the newly formed trio of John LeClair, Eric Lindros, and Mikael Renberg manhandled the Canadiens at the Montreal Forum in a 7-0 win on Feb. 25, 1995, Montgomery remarked that the unit “looked like the Legion of Doom out there,” referring to the WWF wrestlers.
Print reporters ran with it, team broadcaster Gene Hart added it to his on-air lexicon, and the moniker stuck.
But Montgomery, now in his first year with the Bruins, didn’t come up with the name. He said it was his old friend from Montreal, who became a Flyers fan during the Canadiens’ dynasty days of the late ‘70s.
“The first book I ever read was a Bobby Clarke autobiography,” recalled Tommy Cacioppo, a Montreal window supplier and Montgomery’s schoolboy linemate. “That was in elementary school. It had nice orange pictures.”
The Montgomerys were a Habs household, but Cacioppo’s Broad Street Bullies fandom was cemented at his neighborhood Catholic church, which ran the local youth leagues. He recalled a day when kids came in to pick out game jerseys, which were knockoffs of NHL teams. The lines were longest for the Original Six clubs, especially Montreal and Boston. Cacioppo’s dad was impatient, he recalled, so he went to the shortest line.
He’s been a Flyers fan since.
Montgomery was called up by Philadelphia in 1995 and coined a phrase. Cacioppo could only laugh when he saw his idea plastered all over T-shirts and posters, thinking of the dollars flying away.
“I always said,” Cacioppo mused, “that I should at least drop the puck at center ice.”
Bruins defenseman Jakub Zboril was pumped when the team traded for his childhood buddy, Pavel Zacha. Zboril and the ex-Devils forward, shipped here in July for Erik Haula, played together on youth teams beginning as 4-year-olds in Brno, Czechia.
Now both living in South Boston, they’ve had fun hanging out together. But Zboril can only handle so much sometimes.
“Unfortunately [Zacha] has two cats, and I’m allergic to them,” Zboril said. “These past couple days I was in his apartment with him and sneezing all over the place.
“I was looking forward to seeing him.”
Just not the cats.
File this away for playoff time: Jeremy Swayman once believed he would be a Maple Leaf. On a recent podcast with former NHL enforcer John Scott, Swayman said in his draft year (2017), he had talked to Toronto more than any team. Swayman thought he might go to Toronto at pick No. 110, but the Leafs took goalie of the year Ian Scott. Boston nabbed a potential ace in Swayman with the next pick. Scott, 23, retired over the summer because of chronic injuries. He never played in the NHL . . . Swayman’s next contract came into sharper focus last week when Florida signed Spencer Knight to a three-year extension at $4.5 million per. Expect Swayman, an RFA next summer, to come in near Knight and Dallas’s Jake Oettinger (three years times $4 million) . . . Plain-spoken Montgomery noted recently that one of his mentors “was never going to be a good head coach” because he went on too many tangents. “Tangents don’t work,” Montgomery said. “Players want direct, concise, clear communication.” . . . There are 11 NHL teams with a different coach from last fall: Boston (Bruce Cassidy out, Montgomery in), Chicago (interim Derek King out, Luke Richardson in), Dallas (Rick Bowness out, Peter DeBoer in), Detroit (Jeff Blashill out, Derek Lalonde in), Edmonton (retained interim Jay Woodcroft, who took over for Dave Tippett in February), Florida (interim Andrew Brunette out, Paul Maurice in), New York Islanders (Barry Trotz out, Lane Lambert in), Philadelphia (interim Mike Yeo out, John Tortorella in), San Jose (Bob Boughner out, David Quinn in), Vegas (DeBoer out, Cassidy in), and Winnipeg (interim Dave Lowry out, Bowness in) . . . Anton Blidh, trying to sew up a fourth-line job in Colorado, survived the first two rounds of camp cuts . . . Memorably named Czech forward Ivan Ivan surfaced in Detroit camp on an amateur tryout. Ivan, whose middle name is also Ivan, is ticketed to head back to QMJHL Cape Breton . . . The Panthers were soon quick to hire Hingham’s Tony Amonte as a scout. Amonte, best known for his years with the Blackhawks (1993-2002), had coached his alma mater Thayer Academy for 12 years . . . Useless stats department: through two preseason games, Ottawa’s Logan Brown (3-1—4) was the NHL’s leading scorer. Arizona’s Barrett Hayton (11 shots in two games) was the most eager shooter. Arizona teammate Jan Jenik (29 penalty minutes in three games) couldn’t stay out of the box . . . Entering the weekend, Connor McDavid had yet to play his first preseason game. He has led the league in scoring three of the last four preseasons (not including the shortened 2021 season) . . . The top preseason performance of the last decade: Nashville’s Ryan Johansen, 4-8—12 in four games in 2016 . . . Great to see Steve Carlson, of Hanson Brothers fame, out of the woods after putting the foil-covered knuckles to cancer. Carlson, 67, was diagnosed with stage four metastatic squamous cell carcinoma in October 2021. He was feeling great during an interview with former WHA teammate (and fellow cancer survivor) Joe Micheletti during a Rangers-Islanders intermission . . . A Jaromir Jagr story I had not heard: in the lockout of 1994-95, a 22-year-old Jagr played one game for a third-division team in Germany. Schalker Haie 87 — that’s right, the boys from Gelsenkirchen — won, 20-2. Jagr scored 27 seconds in, and spent the rest of the game dishing (10 assists). Haven’t heard if he’s playing in the Czech Extraliga this year, but hope we at least see him in a Pivo league somewhere. Na zdraví.