Avalanche D-man Cale Makar wins Conn Smythe as playoff MVP

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Cale Makar led the Colorado Avalanche towards winning the Stanley Cup. It came as no surprise that the dynamic fullback was the unanimous pick for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

“It’s surreal to me,” Makar said. “You grow up, you see that as a child, you have pictures on your wall. I could only think of everyone who brought me here.”

No one has played or produced more for Colorado during that cup run than Makar, who also won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman in the regular season. The 23-year-old ran 27 minutes a game and led the Avalanche with 29 points in 20 games — more than anyone but Edmonton stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

When asked how other teams could emulate Colorado after winning the cup, captain Gabriel Landeskog thought for a moment and said with a grin, “Get a Cale Makar somewhere.”

He showed in this run why he is unique. Makar’s carefree play resulted in eight goals to his credit and many more that he helped create along the way.

Makar is the second defender to win the award in the last three years. He follows Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the back-to-back champion eliminated from Colorado in Sunday night’s Stanley Cup Finals.

“We saw him play like that from day one of the season,” said coach Jared Bednar. “This guy is elite and with him, the work he’s doing for us offensively and defensively, watching him play, how dynamic he is, he’s just the best defender in the game right now.”

And the best player in the playoffs, bringing an incredibly creative flair on offense to fast turnover-enforcing defense.

“I don’t think anything goes to his head,” said general manager Joe Sakic. “Cale is a hardworking, humble guy. He doesn’t pay attention to outside noises. He deserves everything he gets. Such an incredible hockey player and he plays both ways.”

Makar’s development into one of hockey’s top stars has taken some time since he played junior hockey in Alberta, Canada and was drafted fourth by the Avalanche in the 2017 draft. He helped Canada to the junior world title in 2018 and turned down an invitation to represent his country without NHL talent at the Olympics in order to further improve his game at UMass-Amherst.

“I just didn’t think it was the right thing for my development,” Makar told The Associated Press in September. “I needed more time to develop my defensive aspect of the game. I just felt like I wasn’t going to have the same experience at the Olympics, that maybe they would only use me to play on my strengths instead of allowing me to work on my weaknesses.”

Correcting those weaknesses was so important to Makar that he returned to college for a sophomore season before making his NHL debut for Colorado in the 2019 playoffs. He felt he wanted to be “overripe” to play in the pros and thought it helped prepare him to face older competitors.

“It can be a bit difficult for a young defender and if you start early and work at it, the game takes a turn,” Makar said ahead of the final. “But it’s still something I’m trying to improve on. I don’t feel like it’s a fixed part of my game, so you have to get better at it every day.”

Makar went into the Lightning series as the Conn Smythe frontrunner and then failed to score in Game 1, which the Avalanche won in overtime. After seeing Tampa Bay players block so many attempts, Bednar recalled the adjustments Makar made earlier in the playoffs and never lost confidence in the young defenseman’s ability to make a difference.

“I’ll never tell him not to shoot,” Bednar said. “I trust him and his instincts. … If he sees something he likes on the web, I want him to send it there.”

Makar started the streak with two goals in Colorado’s 7-0 win over Tampa Bay in Game 2 to take a 2-0 lead. Long before the final, he received rave reviews from his opponents.

“He’s a great player,” Edmonton defenseman Tyson Barrie said amid the avalanche that swept the Oilers into the Western Conference Finals. “Since he’s been in the league he’s been exceptional and it’s amazing how he creates offense and still plays defense. He’s as good as they come at the back end and the way he skates and moves the puck and retrieves the puck, he’s got every tool.

Makar used these tools to help this core group win the Stanley Cup for the first time.

Follow AP Hockey writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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