My first choice in building a Stanley Cup contender would be an offensive center who consistently ranks among the NHL scoring leaders. After acquiring this center, my next priority would be two good puck-moving defensemen who can generate offense. In order to get this production, I would be prepared to overlook flaws in other aspects of their games like size, backward skating mobility, defensive play. In today’s NHL, the puck must be moved quickly and accurately out of the defensive zone to forwards in full flight, and scoring chances must be generated regularly when handling the puck at the point. Two young D-men who can do just that are Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche and Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks. How do they compare to each other as puck-moving offensive defensemen? Let’s find out.
Both players have had remarkable careers to this point. Makar was selected fourth overall in 2017 after a terrific season with Brooks in the Alberta Junior League. He then became one of the top offensive defensemen in recent NCAA history during his two seasons at UMass-Amherst. In 2018-19, he had 49 points in 41 games as he led his team to the national championship game and won the Hobey Baker Award. He then stepped directly into the Colorado lineup in the Stanley Cup playoffs and did not look out of place. Quinn Hughes was drafted seventh overall in 2018 after excelling with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. He then went to the University of Michigan and had 33 points in 32 games last season. Both Makar and Hughes have been impressive when representing their countries in international competition. Makar just turned 21. Hughes just turned 20. Hughes has been very good prior to this season. Makar has been a notch better.
Hughes and Makar are both being counted on as important defensemen on their clubs. Makar is on the first power-play unit on one of the top teams in the NHL. The Avalanche clearly believed he was ready for this role when they traded Tyson Barrie to Toronto during the off-season. Colorado is a team that’s deep in experienced D-men, but Makar gets his share of even-strength ice time and even some time killing penalties, usually in the last shift of the kill. Hughes is on the second power-play unit of an average NHL team. He also gets his share of even-strength ice time but has not been used at all killing penalties. Hughes is one year younger than Makar and deserves another year of development. Both players will get lots of ice time. Both will be used as point men on the first power-play unit of their teams. Both will get lots of ice time when their team is behind. I envision Makar being used in key defensive situations. I do not see Hughes in that role.
To be an elite-level offensive defenseman in today’s NHL, you cannot have skating deficiencies. Makar and Hughes pass this part of the test. Both are agile and can accelerate quickly. I love watching these young stars receive the puck while skating backwards and then either move laterally, spin away from their checks, or accelerate forward, all the time carrying the puck with their head up. I have only noticed one difference in their skating: Makar has more speed.
Makar’s play in the first month of the season has confirmed my belief that he’s one of the smartest young D-men to come along in recent years. However, Hughes has shown me during his first month that his hockey sense is at the same level. He looks like a prototypical coach’s kid. Watch how he is constantly adjusting his feet before the puck gets to him. He seldom receives the puck or makes a pass while he’s off-balance. Like Makar, Hughes is uncanny in his ability to find open teammates from the point or on a line rush. Coaches stress the importance of closing the gap while defending. Hughes often anticipates where the puck is going to be passed and has already closed the gap before an opponent has received the puck.
No sense wasting much time in this category. Hughes and Makar are both at the elite level at handling the puck and making and receiving passes. I knew Makar was an elite-level shooter with a quick, accurate release of both his wrist shot and slapshot, but Hughes’ shot has been a revelation. His first goal, against L.A., was a rocket. I did not realize the power of his shot until this season. It is at Makar’s level.
Throughout their careers, both of these players will be judged on their offensive production. If this production wanes, their value will decrease quickly. Makar is a far better defensive player than Hughes due to one factor – physical strength. Hughes can be overpowered physically in any sort of 1-on-1 situation. This is why he tries to defend sideways by poking with one hand on his stick. He has no chance of defending territory by skating backwards. Makar lacks tenacity in his 1-on-1 coverage, but he can protect territory and has good agility.
Makar and Hughes should both enjoy long, productive NHL careers. I enjoy their styles of play. Both of them are fun to watch. Both are naturally fluid skaters, and they will be able to handle lots of ice time on a consistent basis. They will be responsible for putting the top offensive forwards on their teams in good scoring positions on a nightly basis. They will be the quarterbacks of their teams’ power plays. In modern hockey, those power plays must produce in order for their teams to win. Neither player will get much time to rest when their teams trail in the third period. These are high levels of responsibility. Pressure comes with the territory. Makar and Hughes have exhibited the necessary attributes to handle these situations. They are skilled, smart and poised. Both of them will provide significant value as offensive defensemen. I believe this is one of the most crucial requirements of a championship team.
There is one higher level to which a defenseman can aspire. This is the role of the all-around star. Teams count on these players in all situations. Teams rely upon them just as much when they are trying to protect a lead or survive a crucial penalty kill. Hughes will not reach this level. Right now, he is above average offensively and below average defensively. With his small frame and lack of strength, I do not project any significant improvement in his defensive game. He is already smart, alert and quick, but that is not enough. When you can be overpowered physically, you will never be a quality defensive defenseman. Makar has the potential to be an all-around star. Right now, he is above average offensively and his defensive game is average. With a higher commitment level to his 1-on-1 play, he could easily become an above-average defensive player. Combined with his offensive ability, this would make him a star. Quinn Hughes is very good. Cale Makar is better. The Hall of Fame could be greeting him in 25 years.