AVALANCHE

Forget the Norris; Colorado’s Cale Makar is now a Hart candidate

Jan 6, 2022, 6:49 AM
Cale Makar...
(Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
(Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar set the NHL world alight following his spectacular, one-man-army goal to give the Avs an 4-3, overtime win in Chicago over the Blackhawks and defending Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Makar dragged Blackhawks forward Kirby Dach around the Chicago end of the rink, speeding behind Fleury and the netting before stopping on a dime and pirouetting, instantly en route to the goal-mouth, while Dach looked around helplessly for a man who was no longer there. Makar angled toward the left side of the goal before flicking the puck back and forth three times in less than a second, finishing his almost-impossibly quick maneuver by fluttering his shot over Fleury’s shoulder, into the net — and into a social media firestorm.

“It’s going to be all over NHL Network tomorrow,” Blackhawks defenseman Calvin de Haan said after the game. It didn’t take nearly that long, as broadcast partners and Twitter followers were instantly enraptured by what longtime Avalanche scribe Adrian Dater described on The Fan as the “best goal I’ve seen in 26 seasons covering the Avalanche.”

Teammate and fellow blueliner Erik Johnson, who scored a pair of goals earlier in the evening, was more succinct. “It was sick.”

Makar, the heavy favorite for the Norris Trophy at the ripe old age of 23, was nonplussed after the game.

“(Dach) was kind of overcommitting to a cycle up top, and I just decided I’d try to take it to the net. Once they took that away, I just tried to put it in short-side,” he explained. “You’re not really thinking. You’re just in the moment.”

Makar’s moments have come fast and furious since the day he stepped into the league. As a rookie, Makar won the Calder Trophy in the 2019-20 season, after making his professional debut in the fires of the Stanley Cup playoffs only months prior. Makar, then only 21 and only three days removed from winning the Hobey Baker Award with the University of Massachusetts, scored his first NHL goal in Game 3 of the Avalanche’s postseason series with the Calgary Flames… on his first career shot.

Now with 14 goals in 25 games, Makar leads all NHL defensemen in tallies, and finds himself in the league’s top 20, regardless of position. The nearest defenseman, Nashville’s Roman Josi, is tied for 40th. Makar’s four game-winners lead all blueliners, and he’s tied for sixth in the league overall in that category.

The numbers in the early going hint at a possible all-time performance if Makar is able to sustain his pace. No defenseman has reached 30 goals in a season since Washington’s Mike Green in the 2008-09 season. Makar is on pace to not only reach that, but possibly become the first defenseman to reach 40 since Hall of Famer Paul Coffey had 48 with Edmonton in the 1985-86 campaign.

Green spoke with The Athletic over a month ago, and discussed what he sees from the Avalanche’s wunderkind.

“He’s got an anticipation to his game,” the former Capital said. “It’s almost like he sees things happening before they do. I think he’ll go beyond (30 goals). I hope he gets 40, to be honest, and I think he’s capable.”

For the Avalanche, a team replete with All-Star-caliber talent in Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Nazem Kadri on the offensive end, it’s Makar — and to an only slight lesser extent, fellow defenders Devon Toews, Samuel Girard and Johnson — that separates the Avalanche from a pack of other Stanley Cup contenders. According to head coach Jared Bednar, that’s by design.

“That’s part of the way we want to play,” Bednar said about the offensive potential of his defense, which leads the NHL with 32 goals. “It’s so hard to create offense with just a line. You end up playing three-versus-five a lot. You need your D to be part of it.”

Behind Makar, the Avalanche’s “D” is the most dangerous in the game. And the Norris Trophy that appears to be headed his way as the league’s best defender might be little more than an appetizer.

In today’s NHL, Cale Makar is one of one. He’s a Patrick Mahomes-type of player that can do things on the ice that no one else at his position can. Players and coaches around the league know it, and now the larger hockey fan base is fully aware that they’re seeing something special. Twenty-two years ago, St. Louis’ Chris Pronger became the last defenseman to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. Pronger scored 14 goals that season; the same number that Makar has after his highlight-reel display in Chicago.

One has to go back 50 seasons to find another defenseman to claim the Hart. That player scored 37 goals in the 1971-72 season to claim his third consecutive MVP at the age of 23 — the one and only Bobby Orr, who redefined the position over a half-century ago for the Boston Bruins. There’s a long way to go still, but it’s possible that the Colorado Avalanche have Orr’s spiritual successor in their sweater.

The league’s most singular player may very well be its most valuable. Makar’s candidacy began in earnest on Tuesday. Stay tuned — now, and for years to come.

***

Shawn Drotar is the on-air host of “Sandy and Shawn;” weeknights from 9p-midnight on 104.3 The Fan.

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