People say defencemen take longer to develop. They say even if they break into the league early, they won’t hit their stride until their mid 20’s. The NHL remains the biggest and toughest stage, where boys must become men to stick around. Forwards have the luxury of less (quote-unquote) “defensive responsibility”, so wingers and even some centremen can play middle-six minutes and gain experience more smoothly. But on defence? There’s nowhere to hide. Yet, despite that fact, Cale Makar hopped into the NHL at 20 years old and never looked back. In just three short years, he exploded and grabbed the hockey world’s attention. His captivating play quickly established an elite reputation for Makar.
Cale Makar Establishes Himself as Modern Elite NHL Defenceman
So, what makes Makar so different? To be fair, he attended college and played two seasons for the University of Massachusetts -Amherst. Electing to go that route gave him a couple of extra years of development prior to turning pro. Hence why, despite being drafted as an 18-year-old, he then played two full seasons of Division I NCAA hockey. Makar won the Hobey Baker award and lost in the championship game in 2018-19, his final year with UMass, registering a whopping 49 points in 41 games from the blueline.
It was that same season that he joined the Colorado Avalanche mid-first round series against the Calgary Flames. Immediately, the youngster contributed with a goal in his first game. He finished those playoffs with six points in ten games, all before even playing a regular-season contest.
No one would have batted an eye if he struggled right away. He could’ve played under 15 minutes a game, had weak possession metrics, and scored zero points. That would’ve been fine for the circumstances. Yet he arrived with force, with confidence, and with the ability to immediately affect the game at the NHL level. Needless to say, expectations grew quickly ahead of his first full season in Colorado.
Cale Makar Shows Immediate Elite Impact
As mentioned earlier, defencemen typically don’t make waves at the NHL level as rookies. Heck, it usually takes a few years until defencemen settle into the NHL. Even for other high draft picks like Makar, rookie seasons pale in comparison to later seasons. A good comparison is Aaron Ekblad won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in 2014-15 after being selected with the first overall pick in the previous summer’s draft. Yes, he won the Calder but he did so with 39 points in 81 games as an 18-year-old. That feat remains incredibly impressive for a defenceman at that age. Again though, he’s twice the defenceman today than he was back then, and continues establishing new career-highs annually.
It’s by that same token that people say goaltenders don’t really reach their potential until their late twenties. Basically, the closer your position plays to your own net, the more responsibility you must assume when on the ice. That responsibility takes longer to pick up at the NHL level, where full-grown men come barreling down to slam home rebounds, chop at goalies after they smother the puck, and finish checks in the corners on dump-ins, etc. etc…
Makar, though, remains another kind altogether. Remember how Ekblad scored 39 points to win the Calder? Makar won the Calder, too, but scored 50 points in 57 games. His possession metrics stand outstandingly high year after year, with double-digit relative Corsi percentages every season. From the jump, he excelled both offensively and defensively.
Taking Elite Levels Even Higher
The most fascinating piece, though, has to be his trajectory. There appears still to be truth in that defencemen take longer to develop, it just turns out Makar’s curve sits far above and beyond anyone else’s. A 50-point rookie season for a defenceman has only occurred 18 times in the entire history of the NHL. And only Makar hit that total with less than 60 games played (the next closest was Vladimir Malakhov, with 52 points in 64 games in 1992-93). Most recently, Moritz Seider posted 50 points in his rookie season this past year; he suited up in all 82 contests, exceeding Makar’s total by 25 games.
Makar’s pace, over a full 82-game season, meant he would have scored 72 points. That would’ve been the second-highest rookie scoring total in the league’s history, behind the great Larry Murphy who had 76 points in 80 games.
In a player’s second NHL season, the infamous “sophomore slump” looms large. A step back in scoring, possession metrics, and/or overall effectiveness would not have shocked fans. What did Makar do? In 44 games, the defenceman potted 44 points. His average time on ice increased over 15% to an enormous 24:19 per night. His already-stellar relative Corsi nudged even higher. Cale Makar stamped himself into the elite defenceman conversation with certainty.
Third Time is a Charm For Makar
Then came this season, the first full 82-game season for Makar. No, he didn’t play in all 82. But due to COVID-19, this season became his first season that actually felt pseudo-normal. It didn’t get cut short at all, so the world finally saw what he could do with a full calendar. And to no one’s surprise at this point, Makar broke through that glass ceiling once again.
In 77 games, he registered 86 points. That ranks 31st all-time for highest scoring seasons amongst NHL defencemen. Roman Josi scored an unbelievable 96 points this year too, giving the 23-year-old a true challenge for the Norris this year. Josi is the only active defenceman to score more points in a season than Makar has (both of those high-water marks coming in 2021-22). The Colorado player also potted 28 goals, good for 25th in league history for goals by a blueliner in a single season.
Raising the Bar in the Regular Season and Playoffs
Measuring differences between Makar and Josi in the regular season remains a difficult task. They averaged nearly identical time-on-ice totals, and the same can be said of their possession metrics. Yes, Josi potted ten more points, but Makar played three fewer games and scored five more goals.
But in the postseason, Makar separated himself dramatically. The two faced off in the first round, as Colorado swept the Nashville Predators in four lopsided contests. Josi carried the team throughout the regular season but the Avs proved too much to handle in a playoff series.
Makar vs Josi, Avs vs Preds = Makar/Avs Win (Handedly)
Through four games, Josi scored just one goal and one assist for two points. He still managed incredible possession metrics but couldn’t do everything on his own. Meanwhile, Makar paced the Avs with ten points. He potted three goals, including the overtime winner in game two. That game wound up being the only close game of the series, and who else but Makar to slam the door on that one?
Next up, Colorado faces the St. Louis Blues. Makar stood alongside his teammates as they dropped three consecutive second-round playoff series over the last three seasons – and the streak goes even longer before he arrived. His performance in round one set a new high for him in the postseason. Should that continue, the team should also set new highs and punch their ticket to the Conference Finals.
Cale Makar Primed for a Long, Elite NHL Career
Another huge difference between Makar and Josi is their age. The Canadian player turns 24 years old in October. Josi, on the other hand, will turn 32 in a couple of weeks. That isn’t to take anything away from Josi; he’s had an incredible 11-year career thus far with plenty of treads left on the tires. But for Cale Makar, his career is just getting started.
And what a start it has been. With 180 points through 178 games, Makar already sits 401st in all-time defenceman scoring. The names around him on that list are mostly retired players who experienced long, successful careers. For example, he sits tied with Willie Mitchell, who took 907 games to score as much as Makar has in a fifth of the time. His point-per-game pace, should he maintain it, would land him amongst the greats in the game over a long, healthy career. From what he’s shown so far, no one would be shocked to see him still in the league in 10-15 years’ time.
Plus, his scoring prowess continues to improve. If he sets new highs again next season, who knows where his ceiling actually reaches if it exists at all. Colorado fans, count your blessings that this man is locked into a long-term contract. He’s not going anywhere any time soon.
Embed from Getty Images