Is Avalanche Defenseman Cale Makar the Stephen Curry of Hockey?

DENVER — The name is floating in the ether, now alongside that of Cale Makar, who was brought there by Wayne Gretzky. On TNT’s hockey show, Gretzky, arguably the best man to ever play the game, compared Makar to Bobby Orr, the towering defenseman who some say is even better than Gretzky.

Patrick Roy said Makar could become the best defender in history, suggesting he could surpass Orr. Others are praising 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.

Hall of Fame center Phil Esposito played alongside Orr in Boston for nine seasons and finds it hard to believe anyone could be as good as Orr, the big No. 4 who single-handedly turned defense into a previously invisible weapon transformed attack, charging up the ice past defenders as if they were helpless statues.

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

None of this is 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 as the league’s best defenseman and two Stanley Cups, which accounted for 10 healthy years .

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

Orr revolutionized his stance, doing jaw-dropping Spin-O-Rama moves at the blue line. But he never danced and carved crescent ice showers on the blue line. And he didn’t walk the line backwards with the puck on his stick like Makar does. No one did such maneuvers when Orr was playing, in part because they lacked modern skates and training methods. As Esposito noted, in Orr’s era, players spent their summers working while players today skate year-round.

Orr didn’t open his hips, clench his heels and confuse defenders like some skaters, most notably Sidney Crosby, can today. But few do it with as much ease and joy as Makar.

“He’s special because he’s faster than everyone else,” said Mikhail Sergachev, an understanding Lightning defender. “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 only using you as bait and as a privacy screen. He’s very, very dangerous.”

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

With a scary lateral move not seen before, Makar could fake left and then right, leaving a defender on the ice while running backwards along the blue line, trying to pass or one-foot shoot. It’s the kind of move that’s almost more reminiscent of a basketball point guard with a skilled dribbling grip than hockey players of the past. Watching Makar is like watching 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 in the team’s first championship since 2001. Standing in the way are the Lightning, who are looking for their third straight Stanley Cup championship. with some great own defenders.

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

Makar’s legacy is already 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 four games in the first round. (Makar had 3 goals and 7 assists in that streak.) Makar is only 23 and Esposito believes 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 48 rating, second only among NHL defensemen to his teammate Devon Toews’ plus-52 (whom Makar humbly dubbed the “main force”) names). of avalanche defense).

But Makar’s game is remarkable beyond the stats. He’s evolving into one of the most entertaining players to watch, a visionary on the ice with skating skills to rival the best figure skaters and stick handling skills that make forwards the envy. He lures defending wingers into moving forward to attack him, and then slides sideways, always with the puck on his racquet.

“He never looks at the puck when he’s touching it,” Sergachev said. “That’s the most important thing about him when you see him on the blue line. He’s always playing with the puck and looking at the net or other players. So he always finds good pieces.”

Makar said he’s always loved skating and doing the exercises necessary to perfect skating on the edges of his blades to create speed and deception. But gifted as he was growing up as a Calgary Flames fan in Alberta, Makar took an unusual path to the NHL, choosing to go to the University of Massachusetts after being drafted fourth overall by the Avalanche in 2017.

Greg Cronin, coach of the Colorado Eagles, the Avalanche’s AHL affiliate, was an assistant coach with the Islanders in 2017 and interviewed Makar before the draft. He wondered why Makar wouldn’t go into big junior hockey like many rising stars. Makar insisted he had committed to playing at UMass for two years before turning pro.

“Of all the interviews I’ve done over the years, this one stood out,” Cronin said. “The honesty and conviction in his response was remarkable, and he made it true.”

Cronin later joined the Avalanche organization, and although he never coached Makar, he took him on the ice at training camp and said Makar might be the best skater he’s 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, sideways. He’ll take half a step forward to make you bite, and then throw himself sideways. The defender is done.”

UMass has since emerged as a title contender, winning the Frozen Four in 2021, but hasn’t been considered in high-league college hockey destinations like Minnesota, Wisconsin or Boston University. Makar did it.

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

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

Carvel said Makar arrived in Amherst already with his unique skating ability, but noted Makar was savvy enough to understand he needed more college time to develop strength and endurance on the ice before moving to the NHL came. When he first arrived, Makar displayed remarkable skill, but he was limited in how many times he could use it.

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

Despite this, Joe Sakic, Avalanche’s general manager and a former star player on the team, called Carvel after Makar’s first year at UMass and told the coach that the Avalanche intended to offer Makar a contract to join the team immediately. But Makar stayed because he knew 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 most noticeable moves he makes now at the blue line weren’t obvious in college, and he said Makar’s skating and defensive play — and his uncanny quick-shooting ability — had been developed in the NHL and are still going to continue.

“I’ve worked in hockey forever; I trained in the NHL,” Carvel said. “There are very few people I would pay money to see hockey play. Maybe five people. He’s obviously one of them. It’s pure entertainment.”

Orr was like that too. Fans couldn’t take their eyes off him as he collected the puck behind his own net, threading defenders as he picked up speed on the ice, or spinning 360 degrees at the blue line and attacking terrified goaltenders.

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

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