NHL coaches say Cale Makar is in the conversation. The NHL Network’s talking heads say Cale Makar is in the conversation. The sportsbooks say Cale Makar is in the blasted conversation.
It’s funny, though. You know the one dude who keeps saying he doesn’t belong in the conversation for the 2021 Norris Trophy?
Cale Makar. That dude.
“I’m honored to be in that discussion,” Makar said last week when asked about the James Norris Memorial Trophy, presented annually to the top defenseman in the NHL.
“I don’t know if I should be even in that discussion this year (though), just considering the kind of year I’ve had.”
Yeah, but on the other hand, kid, as of Friday afternoon you were the only NHL defenseman to appear in more than 10 games this season and average at least a point a contest. As scoring goes, that was a better pace than the Rangers’ Adam Fox (0.87 points per game), the Golden Knights’ Shea Theodore (0.86) and the Lightning’s Victor Hedman (0.83), the odds-on favorite to notch the award.
“Like I said, I don’t think this is the year for me, where I should be considered in the main discussion,” the Avalanche’s young blueline star stressed, doubling down. “There are so many incredible D-(men), and to see how the game’s evolved in terms of defensemen over these past few years, especially, it’s just incredible.”
Yeah, but on the other hand, kid, over your first 90 career games, you’d already collected 85 points. That’s tied with Brian Leetch for fourth-most in league history by a D-man over their initial 90 tilts.
“That comment speaks to his personality and being modest, which is great,” former Avs defenseman Kyle Quincey noted. “But I’d disagree with him and say he’s definitely deserving of that (discussion).
“And being a young guy, at this time in his career, it’s hard to kind of wrap your head around that you’re in that conversation with these great names, guys who’ve been around five to 10 years. And (Makar) has got another five to 10 years, at least, to do what he’s doing.”
“You have to be a complete player”
The Norris Trophy is sort of to NHL honors what the Heisman Trophy is to college football, where the criteria for the award — defined as the league’s “top defensive player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position” — provides its voters a fairly wide swath of subjectivity.
And like the Heisman, the winners are determined by the media — the Professional Hockey Writers Association, in this case. No Avs D-man has ever won the award. Among Colorado blueliners, only Ray Bourque has finished as high as second in the voting, and that was back in 2001.
Defensemen in the NHL have arguably the greatest diversity of skill sets and body types of any position in the sport. Whether you’re Makar (5-foot-11, 187 pounds) or massive Washington veteran Zdeno Chara (6-9, 250), the elites of all shapes and sizes find a way to make it work.
“You have to be up there in points,” ex-Avs defenseman John-Michael Liles said of his Norris benchmarks. “You don’t necessarily have to lead defensemen in points, but I would say that you’ve got to be in the top five in points. Or for him, with the number of games he missed, whether that’s points per game, or what not. I do say, when you look back on it, a lot of times, it’s top five in points or top 10 in points among defensemen, just the impact that they have on a nightly basis.
“I think that, if they’re impacting the game on a nightly basis at a really high level, they need to be in the Norris conversation. It’s those two things.”
And it’s that “nightly basis” thing that could be the factor that holds Makar back, at least in the minds of some voters. Going into the weekend series against the Kings, Makar had missed 12 of the Avs’ first 51 contests, with nine of those absences coming in March and three since April 1.
“Yeah, (injuries) have got to be a factor, for sure,” Quincey said. “The Norris is the total package, in my opinion — it’s not just points, it’s not just one stat over another.
“And one important stat is playing more of those games. And that when you miss time and come back and don’t miss a step and get right back to helping your team, that’s another huge thing. There are a lot of things to be considered in this, and it’s not just offense … you have to be a complete player.”
“Not an if, but a when”
You’ve also got to be, as John Elway liked to say of Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles, available. Every night. Pandemic or no pandemic.
As of Friday afternoon, Hedman had appeared in all 53 of Tampa Bay’s contests; Fox had played in 54 of New York’s 55 tilts.
“Those (numbers) are going to be the ones that I think probably hurt him,” Liles continued. “Just in the sense of how well he was playing before some of those breaks.
“I have a lot of buddies that are still playing in the NHL. And I’ve heard more than one say to me that (Makar) is the best defenseman in the NHL, just with what he does on a nightly basis and the threat that he brings, whether it’s skating in the back, whether it’s passing the puck or moving the puck. And I think people don’t realize that he’s more physical than a lot of people give him credit for.”
It is, after all, about the total package. Your coach trusting you on the penalty kill. Your teammates deferring to your decision-making in a pinch.
Even your time on the ice per game, a stat in which Makar (24 minutes and 21 seconds per game as of Friday afternoon) compares favorably with Fox (24:42) and Hedman (25:04).
“At the beginning of this year, especially, (it was) just the consistency factor, being reliable on the defensive side of the puck,” Makar said. “That’s just something I’ve just wanted to kind of mold my game into. And I think it’s been struggling a little bit, lately.
“It’s just getting back on track and making sure you’re doing the things right … but I think, at the end of the day, I always say this: I think it’s looking for that consistency on both ends of the ice. And making sure that when the team needs me, I’m reliable in any one of those situations.”
Because whether he lands on the right side of the conversation this spring or not, Makar’s only 22. So he’s going to be in that discussion again. And again. And again.
“Oh yeah, absolutely, I think he could be in the top 3 (this year),” Liles said. “But I’ve said this a couple times: I would be shocked if he doesn’t have a Norris Trophy in the next three or four years. It’s not an ‘if,’ but a ‘when.’ That’s how I look at it with him.”