Creating NHL Draft Buzz at the World Jr A Challenge

Bob McKenzie, TSN Hockey Insider –

In an NHL draft year that has been decidedly absent of buzz, Cale Makar, we thank you.

The 18-year-old right-shot defenceman who plays for the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League made a statement of sorts on Sunday night, when he scored two goals and five points to lead Canada West to a 6-2 win over Switzerland in the World Junior A Challenge in Bonnyville, Alta.

The stands were filled with NHL scouts, who came away mightily impressed with the offensive defenceman, even though it was clear the Swiss did not provide a stern test.

No sooner had Makar put his WJAC tournament record five points in the bank — including these two goals…

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…then I received a couple of text messages from NHL scouts in Bonnyville.

“Makar should be in Blainville, not Bonnyville,” was the message.

Blainville, Que., is the site of Canada's national junior team selection camp for the 2017 World Junior Championship.

At least a couple of NHL scouts believed Makar's effort signified worthiness to be amongst the top 10 Under-20 defenceman in Canada trying out for seven spots on Team Canada.

“He should be there,” another scout said. “He would be the Canadians' best defenceman for the World Junior Championship.”

It's not as if Makar has come out of nowhere. The graduate of Calgary midget hockey took the Junior A level by storm last season. Makar was named AJHL Rookie of the Year and AJHL (South Division) all-star. He helped lead the Bandits not only to the AJHL championship but to the RBC Cup national Junior A championship, where he was named the tourney's top defenceman and top scorer.

The 5-foot-10, 175-pound blueliner is committed to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for next season. Born on Oct. 30 — he's already turned 18 — Makar missed being eligible for last year's draft by a month-and-a-half.

This season, based on his strong play in the AJHL and last night's scintillating performance, he's been rocketing up the NHL draft charts.

For some NHL teams, he's emerged as the top Canadian defenceman eligible for this year's draft, ahead of Kelowna Rocket Cal Foote (son of ex-NHLer Adam was born in the U.S but will eventually get Canadian status from IIHF) and Mississauga Steelhead Nic Hague. Both are projected as potential first-round picks in this year's draft.

“(Makar) has skill that could make him best defenceman in North America for the draft,” another NHL scout said.

Another scout, while acknowledging the weakness of competition last night, said Makar's performance was the best he'd seen from any player at any level this year.

As for Team Canada and its ongoing tryouts in Blainville, Hockey Canada brass were cognizant on Monday of the buzz generated by Makar and the increasingly popular theory he should be in Blainville, not Bonnyville. By no means is Hockey Canada unaware of Makar and did give some consideration to him this season.

He's almost certain to be invited to the Under-20 national junior team summer camp this August, but not one draft-eligible defenceman is amongst the 10 in Blainville, trying out for Team Canada. Foote likely would have been invited had the IIHF approved his status as a Canadian.

Many scouts I talked to on Monday said they don't  disagree with the Hockey Canada assessment as far as the WJC is concerned, but it's by no means unanimous.

“He's a great prospect,” a scout said. “That doesn't automatically make him a great player for U-20.”

“Outside of playing in last year's World Junior A Challenge and this year's event, he's only played Jr. A in Alberta,” another scout said. “He's a gifted offensive defenceman but he hasn't shown any ability to play without the puck against high-end competition. That would be an incredible step up for him.”

That sterner test for Makar will come tonight. Canada West faces Russia at 9:30 p.m. ET in Bonnyville. Russia's lineup includes potential top 2018 NHL draft prospect Andrei Svechnikov.

“Let's see how he fares against the Russians before we get too excited,” another NHL scout said.

If Makar shines against Russia, there's no telling how many text messages will be sent from Bonnyville to Blainville on Tuesday.

In any case, Makar has established himself amongst the top defencemen for this year's draft and created a whole lot of buzz.