When the Colorado Avalanche drafted Cale Makar fourth overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, hopes were high that he would turn into a very good NHL defender. When Makar won the 2019 Hobey Baker Award after dominating the NCAA during his sophomore season, fans knew they had a special prospect on their hands. Now, only 20 games into his NHL (regular season) career it seems as though any limitations we've had on expectations for Makar should be thrown out the window.
The kid is really good - and he’s going to be a superstar.
When he made his debut in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last April, you could tell Makar was NHL ready. He was thrust into the lineup midway through the first round series against Calgary and made an impact immediately. He scored a goal in the first period of his first game and by the time the Avalanche were eliminated a round later, he was already playing in the team’s top-four and at times was tasked with shutting down the opponent's top line while defending leads late in the game.
As impressive as Makar was during his series and a half of play in last year’s playoffs, the possibility did still exist that there would be growing pains this season. Riding high off of the adrenaline of a great NCAA season and playing in your first NHL games is one thing. Sustaining it through a summer and into an 82-game season is another.
There hasn’t been a step back. In fact, Makar is accelerating forward.
After putting up 11 points in his last six games, Makar is now up to five goals and 22 points through his first 20 regular season NHL games. That puts him tied with Dougie Hamilton for second in league scoring among defenders, trailing only John Carlson.
While he averages more power play time than any other defender on the Avalanche, Makar isn’t padding his stats with the man advantage. All five of his goals have come at 5v5. That’s one behind the league lead for a defender. On a team that has needed an influx of secondary scoring, Makar has helped provide it. The Avalanche have been devastated by injuries - including a long term absence for two of their three all star forwards - yet the team still leads the Western Conference in goals for. Makar has had a major impact on this accomplishment.
He’s producing points at a league-high rate, and doing it while getting less ice time than any other NHL defenseman in the top-12.
But he’s been more than just an offensive defender. Though his ice time has been sheltered at times, Makar has proven he’s more than capable of holding his own against veteran NHL forwards. He gets a lot of offensive zone starts, but that has more to do with his capability to generate scoring chances than it does with his defensive ability - or perceived lack there of.
“I feel really comfortable with where his game is at and he’s just going to continue to build on that.” Coach Jared Bednar mentioned about Makar’s defensive game.
As he gets more comfortable on the ice, Makar’s coaches seem to be gaining more confidence in him. Makar’s ice time has been going up. In the last two games, his TOI exceeded 22 minutes in consecutive games for the first time all season.
And you can see the confidence in his own game growing at the same time. Makar carries the puck like a veteran and has a presence on the ice that his teammates feed off of.
While Erik Johnson and Samuel Girard log the big minutes as the top defensive pair in Colorado, the Makar’s ice time is creeping up. Playing with either Ian Cole or Nikita Zadorov, the rookie is the undisputed number three on the blue line as he works his way through the few hiccups we’ve seen in his game. Thanks to the presence of Johnson and Girard, the Avs don’t need Makar to play a shutdown role but when he’s called on to do so, he’s shown that he’s more than capable to do so.
Makar gives up more shots against per game than every Avalanche defender except for NikitatZadorov. That said, he has shown the ability to keep the opponents to the low danger positions on the ice in order to make life easy for his goalies - only Girard gives up fewer high-danger scoring attempts against per game than Makar.
He’s come a long way defensively since the 2018 World Junior Hockey Championship where he put up points but definitely looked like the second best Colorado Avalanche prospect on Team Canada’s blue line. The skating and puck moving has always been there, but his second year at UMass helped develop a confidence away from the puck that has turned Makar into a dependable two-way defender.
Small sample size be damned, Cale Makar is on the verge of becoming a legitimate star in the NHL. We’re only 20 games into his career, but this is not a player that looks like he’s still eligible for the Calder Trophy - at times he looks like a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate. Unless something crazy happens over the second half of the season, he will be only the second defenseman to win the NHL’s rookie of the year award in the last decade.
The current NHL record for most points by a rookie defenseman was set when Larry Murphy put up 76 points in the 1980-81 season. Through a quarter of the season, Makar is on pace for 90. That production likely isn’t sustainable but there’s no reason to think Makar can’t finish the year very high on the all time list.
Not even the best players make it through 82 NHL games without a setback. There’s the inevitable “rookie wall” that Makar is going to have to deal with. He played 75 regular season games in the last two seasons combined. As he works his way through 82 games against NHL competition, he will face adversity. Luckily, Makar has the type of raw talent to push forward in his development very quickly.
The sky is the limit in terms of potential. He will win the Norris Trophy one day - likely multiple times. He’s already one of the most exciting young players in the NHL and it’s not hard to imagine a future where Cale Makar is one of the top-three defenders in the league for more than a decade.