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Is Avalanche Defenseman Cale Makar Hockey’s Stephen Curry?




DENVER The name is floating in the air, now, next to Cale Makars, put there by Wayne Gretzky. On TNT’s hockey show, Gretzky, arguably the greatest ever to play the game, compared Makar to Bobby Orr, the transcendent defender who some claim was even better than Gretzky.

Patrick Roy said Makar could be the best defender in history, suggesting he could outdo Orr. Others have sung along and praised the brilliant skating, stick handling and playmaking of Makar, a child prodigy from Alberta, Canada, who helped lead the Colorado Avalanche to a 1-0 lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Finals .

Phil Esposito, the Hall of Fame center, played nine seasons alongside Orr in Boston and has a hard time believing that anyone can be as good as Orr, the great number 4, who single-handedly turned defense into a previously invisible weapon of attack. , storming up the ice, past defenders like helpless statues.

Makar is really, really good, said Esposito, now a radio announcer for Lightning games. But Bobby was the best. I say this: the child is near. He dictates the game like Bobby did.

All this is not to say that Makar is a better player than Orr compared to his time, or that he will have a better career than Orr, who won eight Norris trophies for the league’s best defender and two Stanley Cups, in what amounted to at 10 healthy years.

But Makar excels at skating and stick maneuvers that Orr and his colleagues hadn’t even considered in the 1970s or many years after that.

Orr revolutionized his position, making spin-o-rama moves at the blue line that left the jaws hanging. But he never danced and never carved crescent-shaped icy rains near the blue line. And he didn’t back the line with the puck menacing on his stick like Makar does. Nobody made those moves when Orr played, partly because they didn’t have modern skates and training methods. As Esposito noted, Orrs-era players spent their summers working, while today players skate all year round.

Orr didn’t open his hips, didn’t put his heels together, and didn’t confuse defenders like some skaters, especially Sidney Crosby, can do these days. But few do it with as much ease and pleasure as Makar.

He’s special because he’s faster than everyone else, said Mikhail Sergachev, an insightful defender for the Lightning. He knows how much time and space he has and he uses it to his advantage. You think you have it, but you don’t. He’s just using you as bait and as a screen. He is very, very dangerous.

Sergachev played five seasons and won two Stanley Cups with the Lightning. He is a student of the game and above all of his own position. When he sees Makar has the puck at the blue line, he and his teammates are ready for almost anything.

With a terrifying lateral move previously unseen, Makar could fake left and then right, leaving a defender stumbling onto the ice as he skates backwards along the blue line in search of a pass or blast either foot. It’s the kind of move that’s almost more reminiscent of a basketball point guard with a handy dribbling handle than hockey players of the past. Watching Makar is like watching the Stephen Curry of hockey, and it leads to success.

In this season’s playoffs, Makar has 5 goals and 17 assists, and his 22 points lead the Avalanche into what could end up in the team’s first championship since 2001. Standing in the way is the Lightning, looking for their third consecutive Stanley Cup championship, with some great defenders of their own.

They are trying to build a dynasty, Makar said on Tuesday. We’re trying to build a legacy.

Makar’s legacy is already well under construction. He is a finalist for the Norris Trophy along with Victor Hedman of the Lightning and Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators, who defeated the Avalanche in the first round in four games. (Makar had 3 goals and 7 assists in that streak.) Makar is only 23 and Esposito thinks he will win at least three or four Norris trophies.

In the regular season, he had 28 goals and 86 points and a plus-minus rating of positive-48, second only among NHL defenders, after the plus-52 of his teammate Devon Toews (who humbly made Makar the driving force of the Avalanche defense).

But Makar’s game is noticeable beyond the stats. He evolves into one of the most entertaining players to watch, a visionary on the ice with skating skills that rival the best figure skaters and stick-handling skills that make attackers jealous. He tempts defensive wingers to move forward to attack him, and then he slides sideways, always with the puck loaded onto his stick.

He never looks at the puck when he’s handling it, Sergachev said. That’s the main thing about him when you watch him on the blue line. He always handles the puck and looks at the net or other players. He always finds good pieces that way.

Makar said he always loved to skate and did the drills necessary to perfect skating on the edges of his blades to generate speed and trickery. But gifted as he was, he grew up in Alberta as a fan of the Calgary Flames, but Makar took an unusual route to the NHL, choosing to attend the University of Massachusetts after being drafted by the Avalanche with the fourth choice, overall, in 2017.

Greg Cronin, the coach of the Colorado Eagles, the Avalanches AHL affiliate, worked as an assistant coach with the Islanders in 2017, interviewing Makar before the start. He wondered why Makar wouldn’t go into big junior hockey like many rising stars. Makar insisted he committed to playing at UMass for two years before turning pro.

Of all the interviews I’ve done in those years, that one stood out, Cronin said. The honesty and conviction in his answer were remarkable, and he delivered.

Cronin later joined the Avalanche organization, and although he has never coached Makar, he has attended training camp on the ice with him and said Makar may be the best skater he has ever seen.

I call it joystick hockey, Cronin said. It’s like someone controls it from above, moving it up, back and forth, bang, sideways. He will take a half step forward to let you bite, and then he will swing himself sideways. The defender is ready.

UMass has now become a title contender, winning the Frozen Four in 2021, but it was not considered in the top tier of college hockey destinations, such as Minnesota, Wisconsin or Boston University. Makar made it work.

In April 2019, in a remarkable four-day span, Makar won the Hobey Baker Award for Best Collegiate Player, played (and lost) in the national title game, signed with the Avalanche, and then scored in his NHL debut against Calgary, no less.

He helps us recruit every night he plays, said Greg Carvel, the Minutemens coach. That is his legacy, that perhaps the best player in the world played in this program. Kids want to play where Cale did.

Carvel said Makar arrived at Amherst with his unique skating skills already in place, but noted that Makar was smart enough to understand that he needed more college time to develop strength and stamina on the ice before entering the NHL. When he first arrived, Makar displayed remarkable skill, but he was limited in how many times he could deploy it.

I only remember going to the end of the bank and saying, Get Cale out there more, Carvel recalled. He just couldn’t. It was a sign that he wasn’t ready yet.

Still, Joe Sakic, the general manager of Avalanches and a former star player of the team, phoned Carvel after Makar’s first year with UMass and told the coach that the Avalanche planned to offer Makar a contract to join the team right away. But Makar stayedknowing he had to get stronger.

The scariest thing for the rest of the NHL is that Makar keeps getting better. Carvel said some of the flashiest moves he’s making on the blue line right now weren’t apparent in college, and he said Makar’s skating and defense game and his uncanny marksmanship were developed in the NHL, with more to come. .

I’ve always worked in hockey; Ive coached in the NHL, Carvel said. There are very few people I would pay money to watch hockey play. Maybe five people. He is clearly one of them. He is pure entertainment.

Orr was like that too. Fans couldn’t take their eyes off him as he collected the puck behind his own net, slammed defenders as he accelerated the ice, or spun 360 degrees at the blue line and attacked terrified goalkeepers.

Bobby was BobbyEsposito said. Let this boy have his own career. But he sure is fun to watch.




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