Life comes at you fast, and in the National Hockey League, it can move even faster it seems.
For the Colorado Avalanche’s top-pairing defensemen of rookie Cale Makar and sophomore Ryan Graves, if you asked them if they’d be in this position a couple years ago, they’d probably tell you no.
“I’d be lying if I said ‘yes,’” Graves said in the locker room of Falcon Stadium after taking in the team’s first practice skate the afternoon before the highly-anticipated Stadium Series at the Air Force Academy.
“I didn’t really look this far forward,” added Makar, whose Falcon Stadium locker room stall sat next to Graves’. “I mean, I didn’t really know what to expect, I kind of just went with it.”
Makar’s immersion into the NHL was a whirlwind. At the tailend of last season — and in the span of less than three days — Makar went from accepting the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player on a Friday. By Saturday, he was playing for the NCAA national title with his UMass teammates. Then on Sunday, the Avalanche signed their 2017 fourth-overall pick to his entry-level contract. The very next day, he was thrown into Game 3 of Colorado’s first-round matchup, making his NHL debut against his hometown Calgary Flames. Then he scored his first NHL goal in the first period of that debut.
Graves’ path was a little less chaotic, but still a pretty quick transition nonetheless. A late-season trade in 2018 from the New York Rangers to the Avs was written off as a change-of-scenery, AHL-depth trade. Graves played a handful of games with then-Colorado affiliate San Antonio Rampage before the Colorado Eagles became the new farm team for the Avalanche at the start of the 2018-19 season.
He played just 32 games with the Eagles before he got the call up to Denver a couple days after Christmas of 2018. He made his NHL debut, and after a three-week stint with Colorado was sent back down to the American League. Graves was called up and sent back down one more time before the Avs came calling back on Feb. 9 of last season. He never returned to Loveland after that and has since become one-half of the Avalanche’s top pair on the blueline, sharing that role with Makar.
In a way, the individual paths of both Makar and Graves were similar in some respects and vastly different in others. Yet still, they’ve ended up in the same spot, playing on arguably the NHL’s top defensive pairing.
“He’s easy to play with. He’s dynamic, he’s electric. He’s an elite defenseman — probably one of the best defenseman in the league,” said Graves of his D partner. “Not only should he be up for a Calder, he should be up for a Norris in my opinion.”
Makar shared similar sentiments of his partner.
“I love playing with Gravy (Graves),” said Makar. “He makes my job easy just in terms of he’s very reliable with the puck.”
The Avs phenom of a 21-year-old rookie has quickly taken this league by storm, and as Graves mentioned, he’s arguably the favorite to take home the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie — and he’ll maybe even get some Norris consideration to boot. Makar, however — in typical Makar fashion — isn’t content with his play.
“I want to be consistent. I just want to be reliable in all situations. I think I’ve lacked in certain areas this season at different points,” said Makar of his game. “I think right now, everything needs to be tightened up with this team, and that’s what we talked about (before the Stadium Series), too.
“Personally, I think I can be better in all things. I just want to be reliable.”
Just 40 games into the season, Makar broke the franchise’s rookie record for goals by a defenseman with his 11th tally of the year. Two weeks later, he set a new franchise record for points by a rookie D-man with his 38th point.
Statistically speaking, Makar is about as reliable as it gets. He currently leads all rookie defensemen with 12 goals and sits just two points shy of Vancouver’s rookie D-man Quinn Hughes’ rookie points lead, while playing eight fewer games than his Canucks counterpart. It took Makar until Dec. 28 to commit his first NHL penalty, which was an accidental Delay of Game call in which he cleared the puck over the glass.
Makar has only committed eight minutes worth of penalties all season long — and that’s something certainly worth noting when speaking on the rookie’s reliability.
Indeed, the Avalanche — and Graves — can count on him.
“It’s always nice when you can give the puck to your D partner, and if there’s not an option, he can break it out with his feet,” said Graves. “There’s times when I get it and I’m looking for an option and I want to pass, pass, pass. And sometimes he gets it and there’s not an option and it’s three hard strides and he’s so much faster than people that it makes your job a lot easier.”
Offensively, Graves and Makar have far exceeded any expectations. The pair are one-two in D scoring on Colorado’s roster and are part of a six-man defensive unit that is top-three in scoring in the entire league. In addition to that, Graves leads the entire NHL in plus/minus with an astonishing plus-41.
But again, in typical Cale Makar fashion, his belief is that there could always room for improvement.
“Obviously we want to be able to produce offensively, but I think for us we need to start focusing on the defensive aspects better,” said Makar of his and Graves’ scoring prowess. “We’re good in certain aspects, but I think we could be better in a lot of different aspects as well.”
“For me, all over the ice, it’s just being simple and just facilitating and being an efficient, simple puck mover and defending well,” Graves added of how he’d like to improve in his individual game.
It’s a process that’s taken over two years but has very quickly come together this season. General manager Joe Sakic has found an incredible core of young defensemen that can take the Avalanche to where they want to go for years to come, and it starts at the top with that No. 1 unit of Makar and Graves.
“We feed off each other,” added Graves of his D partner. “On regroups and breakouts and things like that, I’m always looking for him. He’s a dynamic player, he makes things happen. Part of my job is to put him in good spots and let him do his thing.”
“I mean, I’m fortunate here that we have such a great group of guys and everyone likes one another and you can’t really ask for much more than that as a team,” said Makar. “Hopefully we can keep rolling here.”