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Cale Makar

By Mike Chambers

Veteran Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson was on the visiting bench in Philadelphia on Dec. 6, watching young teammate Cale Makar make an end-to-end play that reminded him of a legendary NHL defenseman. 

Bobby Orr.

“Sick,” said Johnson of Makar’s spectacular goal in which the third-year rearguard skated the puck approximately 185 feet. “I think I said, ‘Bobby’ on the bench. That was unreal.”

Audio from the Avalanche bench as the play unfolded later made it to social media. And Johnson did indeed say “Bobby.” Another said, “Oh my god,” followed by “Bobby Makar.”

Comparisons to Orr are valid for Makar, who is also tied to another legendary defenseman – Paul Coffey. Orr and Coffey are the only NHL blueliners to score 40 goals in a season – though Makar’s early pace puts him on track to join them in that exclusive club by season’s end. “The pucks just seem to be going in right now,” said Makar before the new year. “Continuing throughout the year, I think it’s a little bit heavy pace, but credit goes back to guys moving the puck and then creating lanes for everybody.”

Playing at Chicago on Jan. 4, Makar scored what ESPN analyst Kevin Weekes proclaimed the “goal of the year.” We’re unsure if he meant the 2021-22 season or just the new calendar year. But it was slick enough to be in contention for both.

In overtime, Makar drove around Chicago’s net, shed the defending Kirby Dach by slamming on the brakes and spinning the other way with speed, faking a forehand shot on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury before going to the backhand and roofing the puck short-side. “One of the best goals of the year,” said Johnson, who scored twice in regulation to help force overtime. “That was pretty sweet to watch from the bench. Just his edgework and the way he finished.”

The 23-year-old Makar can’t grow much facial hair, but he’s wholeheartedly blessed with a skill set and confidence reminiscent of Orr in the late 1960s and throughout the ’70s, and of Coffey in the ’80s and ’90s. “He pulls those out all the time,” said Johnson of Makar making spectacular plays. “It’s crazy. Just a special talent.”

In December, Makar became the first NHL defenseman since 1988-89 to produce 13 goals in his first 23 games of the season. Following the game at Chicago, Makar had 14 goals – tops among all NHL defensemen – in just 25 games. Now, he's up to 18 goals and 46 points and on pace for 33 goals and 85 points. 

The last D-man to score 30 goals in a season was Mike Green, who had 31 for the Washington Capitals in 2008-09. Before Green, no blueliner had accomplished the feat since Kevin Hatcher had 34 during the 1992-93 season.

The NHL single-season record for goals by a defenseman is 48, set by Coffey in 1985-86. Coffey hit the 40-goal plateau twice, while Orr accomplished the feat once.

“If anybody can do it, it will be Cale,” said Johnson, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft. “He definitely has the ability. Every night, he’s getting a Grade-A chance or two. Do the math, and he can end up with a lot of the greats on this pace. It would be great for us and great for him, and great for hockey overall, to see a defenseman score that many goals.”

Makar nearly equalled another Coffey record in late November after having consecutive two-goal games in contests against Seattle and Ottawa. Coffey is the only NHL defenseman to post three consecutive multi-goal affairs.

But on the third night, Makar came up one goal short, potting a single marker against Anaheim and finishing with six goals in a four-game stretch. “He’s a special player, and he’s hitting his stride, playing well,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar. “I think there’s an element to it where he’s shooting the puck more, and there’s an element to it where he’s recognizing what teams are giving him and he’s moving into the right areas and making plays. He’s done a really nice job here recently, either distributing the puck when he should or shooting it when he should. Those decisions lead to good offensive-zone time, offensive-zone chances. He’s an elite player, especially in that position on the offensive-zone blueline.”

Like Orr and Coffey, Makar is a world-class skater. His hip movement is unique and deceptive. “The thing that impresses me so much is his edgework,” Johnson said. “He gets so deep on his edges and can really score from any way, any angle, and he can get on any edge and shoot. Just the way he skates is special. It’s fun to watch as a player and his teammate.”

Makar is getting well-versed about Orr, who had 270 goals in just 657 career games, as well as Coffey, who had 396 in 1,409. Ray Bourque, who helped lead the Avalanche to the 2001 Stanley Cup, leads all NHL defensemen with 410 career goals in 1,612 games – good for an average of 0.25 goals per game.

“I obviously know a lot about Bourque through the history of Avs and what he meant to the club, and during the first COVID quarantine, Sportsnet was replaying a bunch of old games,” Makar said. “Not so much Bobby Orr but a little bit of Paul Coffey. Obviously, I know about Bobby Orr and how he changed the game for ‘D,’ for sure.”

And make no mistake, Makar is a game-changer as well.  

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