You see Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, and one of the first things that comes to mind is, “I’m pretty sure he could step in at forward in the case of injuries, or even an overall offensive slump for the Avs, and thrive.”
The 23-year-old Makar was at it again Tuesday night, scoring the game-winning overtime goal for Colorado in a 4-3 decision over Chicago.
It wasn’t just that Makar scored, it’s how he scored: a jaw-dropping individual effort that ended with a brilliant backhand shot that beat Hawks star Marc-Andre Fleury in a play that will contend for “shot of the year” rankings at the end of the 2021-22 regular season. It was creativity on full display. It was Makar underscoring the leaps and bounds his game has taken since his first NHL campaign in 2019-20. It was magic. You might expect that from a star forward, but rarely have we seen a D-man who envisions the game as creatively as Makar has.
And really, Makar’s magic act has been there all season long. In 25 games-played, he has registered eight multi-point games, and currently has a whopping 14 goals – putting him in second place on the Avs, behind only star winger Mikko Rantanen (15 goals) – and 28 points, putting him in a tie with Nathan MacKinnon for fourth on the team, behind only first-line stars Gabriel Landeskog (29 points), Rantanen (33 points), and second-line center Nazem Kadri (42 points). He leads all NHL defensemen in game-winning goals, with four; that total also puts him in a multi-way tie for third place among any NHLer this season.
Consistency is a key for Makar. Since he failed to register a point in a Nov. 13 tilt against San Jose, Makar has generated 12 goals and 21 points in 15 games, and he has a points-per-game average of 1.12, putting him in fourth place in the league among all D-men (although third-place Kings D-man Drew Doughty has played only 14 games thus far this year), and first-place blueliner Ryan Ellis has played just four games; essentially, Makar trails only second-place D-man and teammate Devon Toews (1.17 G/GP). Those are fantastic numbers for a forward, but for a blueliner? Well, they’re astonishing.
At the other end of the ice, Makar is a beacon of endurance, averaging 24:24 of ice time. He is quick to get the puck out of his zone and up to one of Colorado’s many talented forwards. He’s an analytics darling, and an all-around threat on or away from the puck. And he’s doing it for $9 million per season for this and the next five seasons. It’s starting to seem like he’s being underpaid, but Avs GM Joe Sakic got him to buy into the team-first spirit and accept less money than he could’ve got elsewhere.
Go down a rabbit hole online and watch Makar’s highlights. You’ll see his confidence, his one-step-ahead-of-everyone-else’s vison, his ability to connect with his teammates with lazer-like precision. He was the fourth-overall pick in the 2017 draft, but if that draft were re-done today, Makar would finish ahead of No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick and No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier, and arguably, would be tied with Canucks center Elias Pettersson (fifth overall in 2017) in a photo finish with Dallas Stars phenom defenseman Miro Heiskanen (third overall in 2017) for first overall.
Unless his game completely crumbles in the remainder of this season, Makar will be in the conversation for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top blueliner. He’s got some tough competitors for the award, including Tampa Bay star Victor Hedman (35 points), Rangers star and last season’s Norris winner, Adam Fox (35 points) Washington’s John Carlson (32 points) and Nashville cornerstone Roman Josi (30 points). But he leads all D-men in goals-scored, and he has played at least seven fewer games (and at most, ten fewer games, in the case of Hedman) than Hedman, Fox, Carlson and Josi. Makar nearly won the Norris last season, finishing second in voting behind Fox. This could be the first of many Norris Trophies for him.
A slew of talented teammates makes Makar’s job easier, but don’t kid yourself – he would be a star on any squad in the league. He has the elite traits that GMs salivate over. He knows where he can create goals on his own, and where he needs a little assistance from his fellow Avs. And again, he is just 23. He can be better than he is right now. That ought to keep rival goaltenders awake with worry at night.
So too should the prospect of Makar playing forward one day. He already can run things as a quarterback on the power play. Imagine what he could do alongside MacKinnon, Landeskog or Rantanen. It’s ideal if he stays where he is – few teams can boast of employing a D-man like him – but the COVID-19 pandemic has made for some strange bedfellows, and it would be intriguing to see what he could do at forward. His versatility is one of many elite parts of his game, and fans and analysts would enjoy seeing him up front, with different responsibilities.
That said, Makar is in the process of demonstrating why he is a frontrunner for this year’s Norris. To get past the Avalanche, you have to get past him, and few teams have had that ability this season. He’s a monster, and no matter where he plays, he’s going to be a high-impact performer.
NHL teams are on notice. Makar is next to unstoppable.