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Cale Makar has legitimate case for top-3 player in the NHL

23-years-old and more hardware than a middle-aged dad fresh out of Home Depot.

NHL: Colorado Avalanche Stanley Cup Championship Celebration Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Avalanche are Stanley Cup champions, and even though that is the most important thing for 23-year-old defenseman Cale Makar, he came home with no shortage of individual hardware. Winning the Norris Trophy for being the best all-around defenseman in the regular season and the Conn Smythe for postseason MVP made him the third defenseman in NHL history to win those awards in the same season.

Makar in his short but impressive career so far also came home with the Hobey Baker award, which is awarded to the best men’s college ice hockey player in a given season, and the Calder Trophy, the NHL’s rookie of the year award. At every level, Makar has won awards and he has earned them.

In terms of his 2021-22 season, Makar scored 86 points in 77 games with 28 goals, and in the playoffs, he scored 29 points in 20 games with eight goals. Scoring goals as a defenseman can be hard, and scoring in the postseason is even harder, but there is no argument that what he did was awe-inspiring. Not only were Makar’s goals stunning, whether he was using his skating to maneuver around players or tightrope on the blue line, but they were timely. So, not only was he almost a 30-goal scorer from the backend in the regular season, but he was also a hero on multiple occasions for the Avalanche.

All of the awards he’s taking home and the statistical output begs two questions: Where does Makar rank in the NHL, and is there an argument for him to be top 3?

Since 2020-21, Makar has been at or above a point per game production with the Avalanche, and he’s tied for first in points among defensemen with the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Victor Hedman. In the entire NHL landscape, he’s 26th. Diving deeper into the numbers, he sits first among defensemen in expected goals for percentage (xGF%) and 16th overall in the NHL (minimum 1250 TOI). Of course, there could be an argument that some of the xGF% outcome could be a result of Colorado being a juggernaut, but it doesn’t take much to realize it’s no fluke.

To go even further, we can look at goals above replacement, a stat developed by Evolving-Hockey attempting to value a player in a holistic way, and over 2020-21 and 2021-22 Makar sits 5th overall among all players behind Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Mikko Rantanen, and Johnny Gaudreau. It’s important to note that Makar played the least amount of games compared to those guys as well with the next player coming in 4 games ahead. In expected goals above replacement (xGAR), he sits 3rd behind Matthews and McDavid by a fair margin.

Finally, below is his 3-season regularized adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) chart, which looks like backward bars indicating how much cell service you have.

Cale Makar RAPM Chart 2019-22

I think it’s fair to say that, by all accounts, Makar has been one of the premier players in the entire NHL since joining the Avalanche in the 2018-19 Stanley Cup playoffs. So, where does he rank among his peers around the league, and is there an argument for him to be top three?

First, it’s important to list the players competing against him for this prestigious, yet subjective ranking. Obviously, the first two that come to mind are McDavid and Matthews. Then, there’s Leon Draisaitl and his teammate Nathan MacKinnon. It’s hard to say that Makar isn’t the best defenseman in the world, especially considering what he’s won, so let’s just focus on the overarching NHL landscape.

I don’t think there will be any argument about McDavid being first. He’s a generational talent, and every hockey fan has seen enough of him to say that he deserves to be at the top. Then, there’s the second position, which after an incredible 60-goal season, most likely goes to Matthews. Finally, it looks like a battle of three for the third position.

First, I’m going to get it out of the way, I don’t think MacKinnon ends up in that third spot. I think the argument for him ends up being more geared towards Draisaitl instead of Makar. With Draisaitl, I think it’s the same way. Instead of Makar, it’s MacKinnon. The fact that Makar is producing at or above the level that those two players are producing in the box score and in the analytical data as a defenseman is just absurd, and I don’t think it’s talked about enough.

Whether or not the hearts of fans around the hockey world believe that Makar should be in the top three among current NHL players, there should be no doubt that he at least has a legitimate case for that ranking. From his box score numbers to his analytics, he has been on or around the top of the defensemen landscape since entering the league. As he continues to mature and slowly enter his prime, we get to sit back, relax, and watch an elite defenseman do what he does best. Take it in while you can, folks.