Lost in the midst of the COVID-19 halt to the 2019-20 season and subsequent uncertainty of its resumption is the outstanding rookie class which offered major contributions prior to the NHL season pause. Now that the regular season has been deemed complete as the league works to move forward with a 24 team resumption in play, it is time to consider those who are up for the NHL awards and more specifically the Calder Trophy which is awarded “to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League.”
While there are more than a handful of impressive rookies worth examining including forwards Dominik Kubalik and Victor Olofsson, defenseman Adam Fox and goaltender Elvis Merzlikins it really comes down to a tremendous duo in the Colorado Avalanche’s Cale Makar and Vancouver Canucks’ Quinn Hughes. Both rookie defensemen were the first at their position to clear the 50 point mark in decades even with the regular season cut short a dozen games or so as each made a great impact on the complexion and trajectory of their respective teams.
Voters may have a tough time choosing between Hughes and Makar because their point totals are similar and might want to give the nod to Hughes for edging ahead with 53 points to Makar’s 50 but digging a bit further should strengthen the case for Makar. Even without getting too fancy we can see that Makar has the edge in points per game at .88 to Hughes’ .78 due to Makar having played 11 fewer games. Despite this deficit Makar still leads all first year defensemen in goals (12), even strength goals (8), even strength points (31) and even strength primary points (26). Vancouver was a stronger team on the power play ranked fourth in the league while the Avalanche were 19th. A difference of 11 power play goals scored between the teams led to Hughes scoring six more power play points than Makar.
The most compelling argument for Hughes is that his contributions are valued higher due to a relative difference to the other blueliners on his team. He did play on average more even strength minutes per game at 17:53 than Makar’s 17:03 but this ranked both of them third on their respective teams’ average time on ice. Hughes’ next closest teammate on the back end in terms of production was Alexander Edler with 33 points which closely mirrors Sam Girard’s 34 points for the Avalanche. Makar was second on his team in points only to Nathan MacKinnon while Hughes was tied for third with both Elias Pettersen and JT Miller leading the Canucks.
Hughes did have a stronger impact on Corsi for at 53.28% as the only Vancouver defenseman over 50% however Makar’s 52.82% also led the Avalanche blue line. Hughes also got slightly more offensive zone starts of 67.07% to 65.37% for Makar though both surely enjoyed more time in close proximity to the opposing net. Defensively it’s tougher to find definitive answers but while Hughes and Makar were both on the ice for 62 even strength goals for Hughes was on the ice for 69 goals against with Makar only at 46. Makar also led with a higher percentage in expected goals for, scoring chances for and high danger Corsi for. In the more traditional statistics Makar shows his well-rounded game on both sides of the puck as he led in hits with 44 to six for Hughes and shots blocked 46 to 43 respectively.
Makar’s arrival in Colorado coincided with several other roster additions which has yielded positive results thus far but none have had the impact Makar has made since his arrival. Less than 48 hours removed from his collegiate career Makar scored his first goal en route to total domination over the Calgary Flames in the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs and the Avalanche have not looked back since. Before they had always been toiling in the borderline playoff tier and it’s no coincidence that with Makar the Avalanche now look like true Stanley Cup contenders.
Cale Makar has earned the Calder trophy for all his efforts.