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StarPhoenix article (Blades' new Russian netminder full of surprises)

June 20 2012 at 10:47 PM
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N. W. Bruin  (Login NW_Bruin_GM)

Response to Vancouver Province article (All eyes on Martinook)

Blades’ new Russian netminder full of surprises

By Daniel Nugent-Bowman, The StarPhoenix

June 20, 2012 9:02 PM

SASKATOON,SK--JANUARY 31/2012-- Goalie Andrey Makarov of the Saskatoon Blades stops the wraparound from Andy Blanke of the Swift Current Broncos at Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon Tuesday, January 31, 2012. (GREG PENDER/STAR PHOENIX)

Photograph by: Greg Pender , Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Saskatoon Blades goaltending coach John Stevenson wasn’t sure what to make of Andrey Makarov when the pair first met.

The initial encounter was last August, two months after the Blades traded up in the 2011 CHL import to nab Makarov — a Russian netminder they were hoping could be their starter for the next two seasons.

So when highly touted Makarov walked into the Blades’ training camp arena in Martensville with nothing but a pair of skates, Stevenson was a little concerned.

Stevenson and Blades athletic trainer Steve Hildebrand scrambled to find some old equipment so their prized off-season acquisition could practice.

They were able to hunt down a hodgepodge of items used by the team’s past keepers, including Steven Stanford’s glove and Braden Holtby’s chest protector. Adam Morrison, who started the season with the Blades before being dealt to Vancouver, lent Makarov a set of pads.

And then the mishmash netminder took to the ice.

“Here he is just stopping everything,” Stevenson recalled. “He basically had this piece of (crap) for gear and it totally impressed me. I went up and asked him, ‘How are you doing it?’

“He said, ‘Does not matter; just stop the puck.’ That’s what first stood out with Andrey for me. When he’s playing his best, he doesn’t let anything get to him.”

Backed by his care-free demeanour, Makarov would become the Blades’ MVP and starred for Russia at the world junior championship in his rookie WHL season.

He’s now regarded as a mid-round pick at the NHL draft Saturday in Pittsburgh.

Makarov developed his makeup when he left his parents and two brothers to play for Lada Togliatti in an under-22 Russian league as a 16-year-old.

Makarov moved 300 kilometres south of his native Kazan and the team helped him find his own apartment. He lived alone and learned how to take care of himself.

Makarov was billeted by Beemal Vasani last season, along with his wife, Tara, and 13-year-old son, Sarik. Of the eight Blades’ players the family has hosted in the last six years, Makarov was quickest to acclimate himself around the home.

“Most of the kids when they stay here, you’ve got to go in, take the sheets off and launder them,” Vasani said. “I remember, he’d been here about a week and he pulled all the sheets off, went down to the washing machine and threw them in. He’s just one of those kids who doesn’t need to be told anything.”

Makarov’s play with Lada Togliatti was good enough for him to be selected in two drafts in 2010 — 25th overall to Atlant in the Kontinental Hockey League and 42nd to the Quebec league’s Lewiston MAINEiacs in the CHL import draft.

Makarov said the choice to come to North America was an easy one because he wanted to pursue a career in the NHL. It was a point he reiterated to the Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets — the two teams that interviewed him at the combine earlier this month.

“I think CHL is pretty good league. It’s more better for goalies,” Makarov said, in his Russian accent. “In Russia, probably 20 shots per game. Here probably 40 shots, 30 shots. It’s a good experience for me. Lots of shots, I like that.

“If you play here, lots of (NHL) teams see you here. It’s better than in Russia. Nobody see you right?”

Not many people saw Makarov in Lewiston as he made only 27 appearances. But when the MAINEiacs folded, the Blades came calling.

Blades assistant general manager Jarrod Brodsky first discovered Makarov during the 2010 world under-17 hockey challenge when the goalie made 42 saves in a 6-2 Russian team over Team Pacific and future teammates Duncan Siemens and Dalton Thrower.

Although Makarov had a losing record in the Quebec league with a 3.37 goals-against average and a .890 save percentage, Blades head coach and general manager Lorne Molleken was told by NHL personnel that the Russian could be a starter.

When Makarov re-entered the CHL import draft, Molleken not only moved up in the draft to pick him, but dealt the overaged Morrison to Vancouver four games into the season to give him the starter’s job.

With Makarov at the helm, the Blades stormed out of the gate, winning 18 of their first 25 games. They also tied a franchise record by winning 10 straight at home to start a season.

“Certainly, it paid off for us,” said Molleken of bringing in Makarov. “Last year our team may have overachieved at certain points of the season simply because he was the first or second star in those games.”

Makarov played for Russia in the WHL games of the CHL Subway Super Series in November and then was selected for the country’s world junior entry.

The 6-foot-1, 178-pound netminder played sparingly until the third period of the semifinal matchup against Canada. Down 6-1 heading into the third, Canada stormed back with four unanswered goals on Andrei Vasilevski.

Makarov entered the contest with 5:43 remaining, survived a late barrage by Canada and then made 57 saves in the gold medal match against Sweden as Russia fell 1-0 in overtime.

“If NHL scouts don’t see that, then I don’t know,” Stevenson said. “To me, you’re playing against the powerhouse in the world and he’s like, ‘This is great.’ He loves that stuff. He’s a very competitive guy. He loves challenges and it actually brings out the best of him.”

Mark Seidel, chief scout of North American Central Scouting, definitely took notice.

At 19 years old, this is Makarov’s second year of NHL draft eligibility, which is usually a deterrent to scouts and general managers.

However, while Seidel believes Makarov could limit his movement in the crease, he rates him as the 62nd best player available and no worse than an NHL backup.

Despite being slowed in the second half by a concussion suffered in his first WHL game after the world juniors, Makarov finished the 2011-12 season with 29 wins, a 3.01 goals-against average, a .913 save percentage and two shutouts.

“He’s a guy that free wheels a little bit,” Seidel said. “But when it comes down to a big, tall, lanky kid that has that type of athleticism, I think it’s worthy of a third-round pick.”

Stevenson, who has been with the Blades’ since 2007-08, calls Makarov the most talented goaltender he’s worked with in Saskatoon. He does have suggestions for improving his game though.

“The mental part of his game is really good. If I had to pick on one thing, it’s that consistent work ethic, that consistent compete level in practice,” Stevenson said. “It’s tough because when you’re the starting goalie — and particularly for him this year when he played as many games as he did — learning how to manage your energy, that’s tough.”

Both Stevenson and Molleken said having a reliable backup next season to keep Makarov fresh will be vital for the team’s success.

After the Blades were eliminated from the playoffs, Makarov travelled to London, Ont., where he began working with a goaltending consultant and trainer in advance of the combine as well as next season’s MasterCard Memorial Cup run.

But before he left town, Makarov took to the ice one last time. It was as a forward on Vasani’s men’s league team at Jemini arena where he impressed again — despite his equipment.

“It was funny, I think he scored two goals in that game and he wore his goalie skates out. Every time he stopped he sounded like a Big Mack Truck with the brakes squealing,” Vasani said. “They made him change into player skates and he just danced around everybody.”

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