How Cale Makar Tilts the Ice for the Colorado Avalanche
Roman Josi (91 points in 77 games) is likely to fall short of the 100-point plateau. However, he’s still delivered the most productive season by a defenseman since Ray Bourque in 1993-94. Even at their absolute peak, Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns couldn’t reach similar heights. As such, many view Nashville’s captain as the runaway winner of the 2021-22 Norris Trophy.
But Cale Makar (85 points in 75 games) is insisting on a two-horse race.
The third-year Colorado Avalanche blueliner keeps getting better and may hold the edge over Josi if you value individual goal scoring and two-way impact over raw production. Makar is simply all over the ice, combining improved defense with phenomenal transitional and offensive ability to impose his will on the game. That total package has fueled a 55-18-6 Avs club that has clinched the top seed in the Western Conference despite a rash of injuries. Simply put, he’s been Colorado’s MVP and the best blueliner in the league this season.
Though his highlight-reel skating garners most of the attention, Makar isn’t constantly slamming on the gas. The 23-year-old picks his spots and looks first and foremost to hand his teammates plus possessions. That usually manifests itself in picture-perfect breakout passes:
Makar excels at solving the forecheck. He boasts the vision to detect his best outlet, the accuracy to connect with them and the mobility to buy time or create different passing angles. This well-rounded skill set affords Colorado clean zone entry after clean zone entry. If you’ve ever wondered why it seems like the Avalanche are always blitzing their opponents (56.9 xGF% during his shifts), it’s because Makar routinely gives them a running start.
When he’s on the ice, the forwards aren’t asked to retrieve pucks. They receive them in stride and begin launching their attack immediately. They can devote 100% of their energy to offense.
If you attempt to cut down on Makar’s time and space, he’ll thread the needle. If you sag off in order to cover his passing options, he’s liable to weave through your entire defense by himself. He’s a true menace with the puck on his stick:
When Colorado’s forwards can’t provide a viable target, Makar has to think on his feet. Fortunately for the Avs, he just happens to be the single best technical skater in the NHL. Yes, even better than Connor McDavid. He’s not faster in a straight line, but he does it all at a ridiculously high level. He can fly out of the blocks, he can shake anyone from a stationary position and he shifts to and from backskating as though there isn’t any shift to speak of. Creating separation is effortless for him. Consequently, he’s made a habit out of slicing through teams like a hot knife through butter.
While structured Makar is great, improvisational Makar is transcendent. He can skate himself out of any bind or uncover daylight that didn’t seem to exist. On the rush, his wheels rocket him ahead of the pack or push rearguards off their blue line to carve out room for his teammates. In the offensive zone, he makes use of his quick-twitch movement to cross up his mark. His style offers a healthy dose of finesse and fire. He can slip through the faintest crack or kick down your front door.
Much like prime Karlsson, he can blaze right past defenders. Much like Kirill Kaprizov, he can open his hips to swivel beyond their grasp. Most importantly, much like the cream of the crop, he consistently manufactures something out of nothing.
His aggressive nature is equally dangerous off the puck too:
A few times per game, Makar will lay in the weeds, bide his time and then crash down from his point position to leave the opposing defense…dumbfounded. How did he get there? Due to his hockey sense, he doesn’t overdo it either. Instead, he plays his role conventionally for the most part, waiting for a suitable moment to swarm the opposition in the slot.
That selective brazenness pins teams on their heels, as they must be wary of both Makar and Colorado’s potent forward corps. You don’t want to leave Nathan MacKinnon or Mikko Rantanen alone. At the same time, Makar has never been more dangerous as a shooter. Sure, he possesses a strong and accurate shot, but that’s not the secret behind his scoring spike. It’s deception.
Not only does he move the point of attack on a dime, but his improved marksmanship has also spawned much more attractive passing lanes:
There isn’t a better defenseman around at walking the blue line or pump-faking under pressure to generate more breathing room at the point. That’s translated to 27 goals. According to Moneypuck, he’s notched the most goals above expected and sports the highest shooting talent percentage among blueliners. In essence, he’s become the best defensive trigger man on top of being the best skater on any back end.
On the power play, this puts defenses in an awful pick-your-poison scenario. They can either allow Makar to pull the trigger or concede more space than they’d like to MacKinnon and Rantanen on the flanks. Once Makar starts moving downhill in the middle of the ice, opponents can only wince and hope for the best.
The scariest part is Makar hasn’t finished developing. He’s first among blueliners in points/60 and dominates elite competition (54.1 DFF%, 63.6 GF%) at 5-on-5, and he’s just getting started. Contrary to popular belief, the team he plays on isn’t an argument against his value either. His relative expected and actual goal rates are spectacular. In fact, the gap between Colorado with and without Makar is larger than the gap between Nashville with and without Josi. So much for that lazy narrative.
Even if Makar isn’t named the league’s most outstanding defenseman this season, he’s entering rarefied air all the same. Thanks to his three-zone impact and third straight year-over-year jump, he’s forcing his way into the debate surrounding the best player in the world.