Sports · June 20, 2022

Is avalanche defender Cale Makar the Stephen Curry of hockey?

DENVER – The name floats in the ether, now, next to that of Cale Makar, put there by Wayne Gretzky. In TNT’s hockey program, Gretzky, arguably the best he has ever played, compared Makar to Bobby Orr, the transcendent defender who some said was even better than Gretzky.

Patrick Roy said Makar could become the best defender in history, suggesting he could outrun Orr. Others intervened, praising the brilliant skating, stick handling and direction of Makar, a prodigy from Alberta, Canada, who helped put the Colorado Avalanche ahead 1-0 over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Finals. .

Hall of Fame center Phil Esposito has played alongside Orr for nine seasons in Boston and has a hard time believing anyone could be as good as Orr, the No. 4 great, who single-handedly turned defense into a ‘ attack weapon never seen before, running on the ice, overcoming the defenders as if they were defenseless statues.

“Makar is really, really good,” said Esposito, now a radio announcer for Lightning games. “But Bobby was the greatest. He will say this: the boy is close. He dictates the game like Bobby did.

None of this means that Makar is still a better player than Orr in his time, or that he will have a better career than Orr, who won eight Norris trophies for best defender in the league and two Stanley Cups, in what it amounted to 10 healthy years.

But Makar excels at skating and stick-handling maneuvers that weren’t even contemplated by Orr and his colleagues in the 1970s, or for many years after.

Orr revolutionized his stance and made spin-o-rama moves on the blue line that left his jaws hanging. But he never danced and sculpted crescent-shaped ice showers on the blue line. And he didn’t walk the backward line with the menacing puck on his stick just like Makar does. Nobody did those kinds of maneuvers when Orr played, partly because they lacked modern skates and training methods. As Esposito noted, Orr-era players spent their summers working, while today’s players skate all year round.

Orr hasn’t opened his hips, hasn’t joined his heels and confuses defenders as some skaters do today, most notably Sidney Crosby. But few do it with the same ease and fun as Makar.

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

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

With a frightening lateral movement never seen before, Makar could feint to his left, then to his right, leaving a defender tripping on the ice as he skates backwards along the blue line trying to pass or shoot with one of his feet. It’s the kind of move that is almost more reminiscent of a basketball point guard with a skilled dribbling handle than hockey players of yore. Watching Makar is like watching hockey’s Stephen Curry, and it’s leading to success.

In this season’s playoffs, Makar has scored 5 goals and 17 assists, and his 22 points lead Avalanche in what could end in the team’s first league since 2001. Lightning stands in the way, looking for a third consecutive league title. of the Stanley Cup, with some of their terrible defenders.

“They are trying to build a dynasty,” Makar said Tuesday. “We are trying to build a legacy.”

Makar’s legacy is already under construction. He is a finalist for the Norris Trophy, alongside Victor Hedman of the Lightning and Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators, which Avalanche wiped out in four games in the first round. (Makar scored 3 goals and 7 assists in that series.) Makar is only 23 and Esposito thinks he will win at least three or four Norris Trophies.

In the regular season, he scored 28 goals and 86 points and a more-less positive score of -48, second only, among NHL defenders, to -52 of his teammate Devon Toews (whom Makar humbly calls the “force driving force of the avalanche defense).

But Makar’s game is appreciable beyond the statistics. He is evolving into one of the funniest players to watch, an ice visionary with skating skills that rival the best figure skaters and stick handling skills that make attackers envy. He draws the defending wings to move forward to engage him, and then slides sideways, still with the puck loaded on his stick.

“He never looks at the disc when handling it,” said Sergachev. “That’s the main thing about him when you look at him on the blue line. He always handles the puck and watches the net or the other players. This is how he always finds good plays. “

Makar said he has always loved to skate and do the exercises necessary to perfect the skating on the edges of his blades to generate speed and deception. But as gifted as he was, raised in Alberta as a Calgary Flames fan, Makar embarked on an unusual path to the NHL, choosing to attend the University of Massachusetts after being drafted by the Avalanche with the fourth overall pick in 2017.

Greg Cronin, the Colorado Eagles coach, Avalanche’s AHL affiliate, was working as an assistant manager with the Islanders in 2017 and interviewed Makar before the draft. He wondered why Makar wouldn’t enter the junior hockey world, like many up-and-coming stars. Makar insisted he committed to playing for two years at UMass before turning pro.

“Of all the interviews I did in those years, that one stood out,” Cronin said. “The honesty and conviction in her response was remarkable and made it a reality.”

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

“I call it joystick hockey,” Cronin said. “It’s like someone is controlling it from above, moving it up, back and then, bang, to the side. He’ll take half a step forward to get you bitten, and then slings to the side. The defender has finished “.

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

Over a remarkable four-day span in April 2019, Makar won the Hobey Baker Award for best collegiate player, played (and lost) in the national title match, signed with Avalanche and then scored on his debut. in NHL – against Calgary, no less.

“He helps us recruit every night he plays,” said Greg Carvel, the Minutemen manager. “This is the legacy of him, that perhaps the best player in the world has played in this program. Kids want to play where Cale did.

Carvel said Makar came to Amherst with his unique skating skill already in place, but noted that Makar was experienced enough to understand that he needed more time in college to develop strength and endurance on the ice before entering the NHL. When he first arrived, Makar displayed extraordinary abilities, but was limited in how often he could distribute it.

“I just remember walking down to the end of the bench, saying, ‘Bring Cale more,'” Carvel recalled. “He just couldn’t do it. It was a sign that he wasn’t ready. “

However, Joe Sakic, Avalanche general manager and former star player of the team, called Carvel after Makar’s first year at UMass and told the manager that Avalanche intended to offer Makar a contract to join the team. immediately. But Makar stayed, knowing he had to get stronger.

The scariest thing for the rest of the NHL is that Makar continues to improve. Carvel said some of the more flashy moves he made on the blue line now weren’t noticeable in college, and said Makar’s skating and defensive play – and his extraordinary shooting skills – had been developed in the NHL, with more on the way.

“I’ve worked in hockey forever; I coached in the NHL, “Carvel said.” There are very few people I’d pay to see play hockey. Maybe five people. Obviously he’s one of them. It’s pure entertainment. “

Orr was like that too. Fans couldn’t take their eyes off him as he picked up the puck behind his own net, shoved defenders as he gained speed on the ice, or spun 360 degrees on the blue line and attacked the terrified goalkeepers.

“Bobby was Bobby,” Esposito said. “Let’s make this guy have his career. But it’s definitely fun to watch. “