The NHL rookie record for points by a defenseman is 76. That was done by none other than Hall of Famer Larry Murphy in 1980-81. Cale Makar, through 23 games, is on pace for 89 points. While it may be unlikely that Makar keeps this pace, thinking that he could sustain this enough to break that record isn’t asinine. Thinking it’s not going to happen might be asinine at this point.
The thing about Makar is that he’s not just performing well on the offensive end of the ice. He’s also shown to be an above-average defender. He makes rookie mistakes at times but when the puck is on players stick so often if his defensive game is slightly above average, that’s more than adequate. In short, Makar has been absolutely dominant to start the season. Let’s take a look into Makar’s game and figure out what is giving him the ability to have such a special season.
Skating and Transition
Makar has quickly become one of the best transition players in hockey. His skating is powerful, dynamic and oftentimes deceptive as you can see in the clip below. Makar has some of the crispest and seamless edgework in the NHL and that allows him to move the puck up the ice with ease.
Makar’s ability to get up the ice with speed and power as well as his agile skating makes him a difficult player to stop as he makes his way through the neutral zone. Makar’s skating is already among the best at his position in the NHL and he just turned 21 at the end of October. Makar is also an efficient passer in transition who can almost instantaneously tilt the ice. As you can see below, Makar is able to go back and retrieve the puck, turn his eyes up ice and identify the open man, Nazem Kadri in this case, at the far blue line. The pass is perfectly on Kadri’s tape, leading him into the offensive zone and on a partial breakaway where he is able to put the puck in the back of the net.
Makar has shown that he is a more than capable puck transporter. His willingness to be bold and try moves like the fake pass back or cutting to the net in the offensive zone is what makes Makar a dangerous player for opposing teams. He has quickly become a player that the rest of the NHL has to account for whenever he’s on the ice because of his ability to change the pace of a game with just a few strides, tilting the ice from his defensive zone to the offensive zone in a matter of seconds.
Defensively, Makar is good but not great. He’s a 21-year-old who was playing in the NCAA about six months ago and has shown growth in the time he’s been in the NHL. His skating allows him to be aggressive and close gaps without worry that he will be too far out of position. His aggressive nature in terms of pressuring and keeping close gaps is one of the most effective ways to play defense in the modern NHL because it allows the player to free the puck up and still be readily available to start the rush or join it. Below we can see Makar do just that. He pressures the attacking player along the boards, frees the puck up and begins the rush himself. Due to the fact that Makar also possesses unreal speed, he turns the odd-man rush into a clean breakaway where he crashes the crease with the puck, generating an excellent scoring chance.
The key to Makar’s defensive game is not having to play a defensive game. While he is being sheltered a bit with over 60% of his zone starts coming in the offensive end of the ice, he is controlling play while on the ice which tends to be over 20 minutes a game already. With roughly a ~56% shot share, depending on the metric you use, Makar has been able to take advatage of the optimal deployment. He has already shown that he is ready for top-pair minutes in the NHL, even in the defensive aspects of the game.
Makar is a special player. His ability in the offensive zone is otherworldly. He understands and reads the game at such an advanced level. Makar has been able to translate all of his skills from the NCAA to the NHL because of how high end both his skating and hockey IQ are. When watching Makar in the offensive zone, you can see that he is calm, cool and collected but cerebral and predatory at the same time. He’s never in a rush to make a play but when he sees an opening he attacks it with belligerence. In the following clip, Makar identifies that he has open space in front of him and closes the gap between himself and the netminder. When the two defensive players begin to step up, Makar pulls off a beautiful toe drag around the diving the defensive players before he fired the puck past the netminder. The toe drag also served as an angle change of the shot, pulling the goaltender further off of the post and losing his framing in the net, leaving a spot for Makar to locate his shot.
Makar is not just a shift goal scorer though. He is also an elite-level passer and reads the ice about as well as any defender in the NHL today. In the clip below, Makar and defensive partner Samuel Girard make a beautiful play at the blue line that leads to a Nathan MacKinnon tap in. With Girard being pressured, he quickly bats a bouncing puck over to Makar. Makar is able to get to the puck and ignore the incoming pressure. He threads a crisp pass to the front of the net that goes off of San Jose defender Brent Burns’ stick and catches the goalie in the chin before leaking out to MacKinnon who buries the goal. Makar’s ability to read and react so quickly is what makes his play so predatory in the offensive zone.
The fact of the matter is that Makar is an exceptional offensive player from the back end. He possesses all of the tools a team covets in a blueliner from elite skating and speed to puck-moving ability. He also has some skills that almost no other defender has including maybe the best puck handling and hands of any rearguard to his innate ability to read a play and make not only the correct decision but the one that can generate the most dangerous chance.
Cale Makar Deserves the Norris
Cale Makar has virtually already won the Calder Trophy with Quinn Hughes being his only real competition at this point as both defenders are pulling away from the rest of the rookie class. With Canada’s favourite sportscaster already declaring Makar as the Calder Trophy winner, the next question we must ask is whether or not Makar has a shot at the James Norris Memorial Trophy.
It’s early in the year and even declaring Makar the Calder Trophy winner is a little bit hasty but if we are talking about quarter-mark awards, Makar at least deserves to be in the running for the Norris Trophy. When looking at the statistics and analytics from this season, Makar is second in scoring amongst defensemen and sixth in powerplay scoring, he leads all defenders in Goals Above Replacement (GAR) and he has done all of this one a team that has been without all of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, and Philipp Grubauer amongst others at various points this season for extended periods of time.
Chart courtesy of Sean Tierney with data provided by Evolving Hockey
Despite all of that, John Carlson with his 36 points in 25 games is likely the front-runner for the Norris Trophy at the moment. His scoring pace is so insane that even the all-world season that Makar is having may not be enough to overtake the Washington Capitols’ defenseman. It is fair to have the argument between the two, along with others such as Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Ellis, when you look at the whole picture. The problem is, oftentimes the Norris Trophy is awarded to the highest-scoring defenceman or the blueliner who is “Due to Win”. This could be John Carlson’s year of both being the highest-scorer and coming to his turn in the “Due to Win” category as well.
If I had a vote, Makar would be my man. He would also be in consideration for my Hart ballot. He’s been that good.
Thanks for joining me for my mid-week Ramblings! This week I addressed a hot button issue, let me know what you think of how good Cale Makar has been and whether you think he deserves Norris consideration. Feel free to comment below or reach out to me on Twitter @theTonyFerrari, my DMs are always open! Be sure to check out my newest project, Shift Work: Anton Lundell, where I do a shift-by-shift analysis of Lundell’s game and figure out what makes him a top-five prospect for the 2020 NHL Draft. Until next time, enjoy the rest of the Canada-Russia series and the rest of the hockey around the world!