It was a showcase of patience beyond his years.
In Tuesday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets, Colorado Avalanche rookie Cale Makar received a cross-ice pass from Nathan MacKinnon and proceeded to do what few defensemen his age would. Stepping up, and with a clear shooting lane, Makar moved towards the net and waited. And then he waited. And when Mathieu Perreault dropped to block any attempt Makar might make, the 21-year-old stepped around the sliding Jets winger with such adeptness and ease that he looked like he was skipping past a puddle. By the time Makar was finally ready to release his shot, he had worked his way to the bottom of the left wing circle. From there, Connor Hellebuyck was at Makar's mercy.
The highlight-reel tally is the perfect encapsulation of what makes Makar so lethal, of the offensive genius he can display at the world’s highest level despite having played less than 30 combined regular season and playoff games. It’s also video evidence of the very reason Makar entered the season as the Calder Trophy frontrunner, not to mention a clip that showcases the very skillset that could lead Makar to one of the greatest rookie seasons by a blueliner in NHL history.
When the NHL released its post-game rundown of the night’s action, it included an interesting statistic about Makar. His goal, which was the game’s opening goal with less than a minute remaining in the first period, stood as the game-winner in Colorado’s 4-0 victory. As such, Makar joined an exclusive club of rookie rearguards who have scored game-winning goals in back-to-back contests. Only seven others have done so, most recently Oliver Lauridsen, who debuted with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012-13 but now plies his trade in the KHL.
But Makar scoring to register back-to-back winners might not be anywhere near as important as what the goal meant to his overall point total. It gave him 18 points in 18 games and kept him at the point-per-game status he reached in his last outing with a two-goal output against the Columbus Blue Jackets. In addition, Makar's 18 points put him atop the rookie scoring race and his scoring pace is nearly one-third of a point clear the next-highest scoring rookie. More importantly, though, Makar's scoring surge puts him on pace to join a class of freshman defenseman – those who have eclipsed the 65-point plateau – that hasn’t welcomed a new member in more than 30 years.
True, Makar’s current rate of scoring exceeds a 65-point pace. In fact, were Makar to maintain his current production level across the full campaign, he would set the rookie scoring record for defensemen by becoming the first blueliner to score more than 80 points in his debut campaign. As it stands, the only defenseman to reach 80 points as a first-year defender is Mark Howe, who accomplished the feat 1979-80. But even Howe's total comes with an asterisk. At the time, Howe was indeed an NHL rookie, but he also had six WHA campaigns under his belt before the merger saw the NHL absorb four franchises, Howe’s New England Whalers among them.
If Howe is removed from the equation then – and by NHL standards, he has been – there are only five defensemen in NHL history who have managed to score 65 points or more in their rookie seasons. In the same season Howe netted 80 points, a 19-year-old Ray Bourque took the Boston Bruins blueline by storm, posting 17 goals and 65 points. The very next season, 1980-81, another fresh-faced 19-year-old, Larry Murphy, displayed offensive excellence, scoring 16 goal and 76 points with the Los Angeles Kings. (Here's where we note Murphy is the only other rookie defenseman in the past 40 years to register 18 points or more in his first 18 games.) Two seasons later, 18-year-old Buffalo Sabres defenseman Phil Housley registered 19 goals and 66 points. That was followed by Gary Suter’s 18-goal, 68-point effort with the Calgary Flames in 1985-86, and no rearguard has registered 65 or more points since Brian Leetch posted 23 goals and 71 points as a 20-year-old with the New York Rangers in 1988-89.
Assuming Makar remains healthy, though, the club may be expanding by one by season's end.
There's plenty of reason to believe that will be the case, too. In order to get to his current point-per-game rate of scoring, Makar has rattled off seven points in his past four games. To expect him to continue to score at that rate would be foolish, no doubt. But prior to his recent run, Makar had 11 points in 14 contests, .79 points per game, which extrapolates to a 64-point pace across an entire season. For the sake of argument, let's say he reverts to that rate across the 68 games that remain in the Avalanche season. Doing so would see him add another 50 points to his resume, and with the 18 points he's already registered, he'd finish with a 68-point campaign.
But let's expand the sample in attempt to get an even clearer picture of Makar's production. If we combine Makar's 18 regular season games with the 10 post-season contests he played last season, he's scored 24 points in 28 games, or .86 points per game. That does little to disprove the theory that Makar can maintain a high rate of scoring, particularly as it works out to 70 points across a full 82-game campaign.
Even if he falls short, though, it’s appears a near certainty that Makar will check some boxes along the way. Given the start he’s had, it seems well within reason that he could become the highest scoring rookie defenseman of the post-lockout era, surpassing the 49 points Dion Phaneuf notched with the Calgary Flames in 2005-06. At 50 points, Makar would become the first blueliner since the New York Islanders’ Vladimir Malakhov in 1992-93 to reach that plateau. And at 60 points, Makar would join a club that hasn’t welcomed a new member since Nicklas Lidstrom debuted with the Detroit Red Wings in 1991-92.
Regardless of his totals, however, we’re witnessing the emergence of one of the next great blueline producers. And if this is what Makar is capable of as a rookie, we can’t wait to see where he goes from here.
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