in december, The Athletic will be highlighting the coaches, athletes and other figures who made the biggest impact in the US sports we cover, as well as in the fields of sports business, media and culture. Next up in the series is our honoree in the NHL: Cale Makarthe young Colorado Avalanches defenseman who lit up the scoresheet en route to the Norris and Conn Smythe trophies for the Stanley Cup champions. The full schedule is here.
Cale Makar didn’t need much time to make arguably the most enduring play of his historic 2022 calendar year. On Jan. 4, with the Avalanche in Chicago, he seized the puck in overtime during a game against the Blackhawks and carried it behind the opposing net. Kirby roof defended the Colorado defenseman as he wandered up the boards.
Then, just as Makar passed the faceoff circle, he halted for a millisecond and turned toward the net. Dach’s momentum kept him going in the other direction. Makar, somehow, had created a path to the net out of nothing. Only Marc Andre Fleury, one of the greatest goalies of the era, stood between him and a game-winning goal. Approaching from Fleury’s right, Makar moved the puck from his forehand to his backhand, then to his forehand, then back to his backhand once more. Finally, he saw an angle and lifted the puck over Fleury and into the net for the game-winner.
Aside from sometimes throwing his hands into the air, Makar doesn’t normally celebrate goals. But this one was different. He knew it, the Avalanche knew it, the Blackhawks knew it, and everyone watching in the arena and at home knew it. This was a play that blended elite speed, edge work and stick handling. Few players in the world, if any, could pull it off.
So filled with adrenaline, Makar glided on a knee and uppercut the air in celebration, a smile bursting on his face as teammates skated his way.
UN FREAKING REAL
— Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) January 5, 2022
“It’s going to be all over NHL Network tomorrow,” then-Blackhawks defenseman Calvin deHaan said in defeat after the game.
de Haan was correct. The Colorado defenseman’s goal against Fleury was Makar’s most replayed highlight in a year full of them. He finished the 2021-22 regular season with 28 goals, tied for the third-most by an NHL defenseman since 1992-93. That total, along with his 58 assists, strong defensive play and elite underlying numbers, led to the then-23-year-old winning the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.
That set the stage for the playoffs, during which Makar solidified himself as one of the faces of the NHL, as he won the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP and Colorado won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2001. Makar’s distinct skillset and historic results are the reason he’s The Athletic‘s NHL Person of the Year for 2022.
“I don’t think anyone in the world has the same potential as Makar,” Dallas Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “That’s just reality.”
He’s doing things on the ice unlike anyone else and, having only just turned 24 in October, he might still be improving.
Makar, picked no. 4 overall in the 2017 draft, debuted in the 2019 playoffs, just two days after playing in the NCAA championship game with UMass, and scored in the first period. After the game, the late Avalanche broadcaster Peter McNab, who played 955 NHL games, approached Gary Makar, Cale’s dad.
“Your kid’s gonna do just fine in this league,” he said.
McNab was correct. Since then, Makar has left some of the sport’s all-time great defensemen in awe. Nicklas Listrom praised his ability to read plays. Chris Pronger called his hockey sense “elite.” Ray Bourque said he’ll be up for the Norris Trophy for years to come.
“Once he wins it once, he’s going to be holding onto that thing for a little while,” Bourque said before the start of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, in which the Avalanche beat the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Makar’s contemporaries hold him in similarly high regard. He is the face of the young group of star NHL defensemen that includes Dallas’ Miro Heiskanenthe rangers’ Adam Fox other Vancouver‘s QuinnHughes.
“These young kids are so skilled,” said Carolina‘s Jacob Slavin, who is from Colorado and has twice finished in the top 10 of Norris voting. “Then (they’re) also incredible skaters. The game is super fast now, so they’ve got to be able to skate.”
Hughes remembers first hearing about Makar when he was 16. The Canucks defenseman, then at the United States National Team Development Program in Michigan, was living with Keith Tkachuk, who was scouting for the blues. Tkachuk brought up Makar over dinner, mentioning there was “a really good defenseman” in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Not long after that conversation, Hughes played against Makar at the 2018 World Junior Championship, during which Makar logged eight points in seven games.
“I just like how he attacks the game,” Hughes said. “He looks like he’s so hungry and doesn’t take a shift off. He’s so elusive.”
“He’s a one-man breakout,” added Nashville’s Ryan McDonaghwho played against Makar while with Tampa Bay in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final.
Makar’s skating ability and explosiveness off both the inside and outside edges of his skate blades lead to that elusiveness, and he’s also got strong hip mobility, which allows him to change his direction quickly. That’s valuable defensively when going up against strong-skating forwards, as well as when getting involved in offensive play.
“He jumps in at any moment,” said Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau, who is in his 16th season as an NHL head coach. “He sees the ice so well, not necessarily making passes but where to jump in. If he was a wide receiver, he’d really know where to go through his routes.”
Makar contributed immensely to the Avalanche having the best 2021-22 regular-season record in the Western Conference — and second-best record in the NHL — and his playoff run, en route to the Conn Smythe Trophy, was one for the ages. He had three goals — including an overtime winner — and seven assists in Colorado’s first-round sweep against Nashville, logging more points (10) than the Predators’ entire roster had goals (nine). In Game 4 against Edmonton in the Western Conference final, Makar tallied five points, including an assist on Arturi Lehkonen‘s overtime winner that sent Colorado to the Stanley Cup Final.
“We’re lucky,” teammate Eric Johnson said afterwards, “because we’re watching greatness.”
That greatness continued against the Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final. Makar scored both a short-handed and power-play goal in the third period of a Game 2 win, and he played nearly 35 minutes in Colorado’s Game 4 victory. Not bad for a player who, only a few years earlier, would run out of gas during back-to-back games as a UMass freshman.
With seven points in the Tampa Bay series, Makar finished the playoffs with 29 points in 20 games. His 1.45 points per game was the highest rate by a defenseman in a single playoffs since Hall of Famer Brian Leetch in 1994.
The Game Score Value Added model from The Athletic‘s Dom Luszczyszyn valued Makar at 1.61 wins in the 2022 postseason, which is the best mark of any defenseman since 2007-08, the first year for which the model has data. He became the third defenseman ever to have a Conn Smythe, Norris, Calder and Stanley Cup on his resume, joining Leetch and Bobby Orr, who tweeted out his congratulations after the Avalance clinched the title in Game 6.
— Real Bobby Orr (@RealBobbyOrr) June 27, 2022
The fact that Makar has achieved all that is incredible. The fact that he did it all before his 24th birthday made it more so. And the milestones have continued in the 2022-23 season. With a goal during a Nov. 22 game against the Stars, he became the fastest NHL defenseman to reach 200 career points, beating Sergei Zubov’s mark by 12 games.
“If he gets a step, he’s in on the offense, in the offensive zone,” devils coach Lindy Ruff said.
“He controls the game,” Vancouver defenseman Luke Schenn said. “He’s as good as it gets.”
Hughes mentioned that younger players seem to be entering the league with more skill, which is perhaps leading to a gradual shift in how defensemen play. That doesn’t mean there’s no longer room for people who play the position more traditionally, though.
“There are still defensemen that aren’t skilled that are effective,” Slavin said. “And then there are defensemen that are like (Makar).”
He paused for a moment.
“I mean, not like him,” he continued. “He’s one of a kind.”
The Athletic’s Sportspersons of the Year: The athletes and coaches who defined 2022
(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photo: Michael Martin / NHLI via Getty Images)