Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes set up fascinating Calder race

The Colorado Avalanche get Cale Makar back on Friday, providing a worthy excuse to consider his exceptional rookie season. Remarkably, Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes presents a worthy argument for the Calder Trophy, as well.

Back in 2018-19, Miro Heiskanen and Rasmus Dahlin blessed hockey fans with their stupendous seasons, yet Makar and Hughes seem primed to set the bar even higher.

Fittingly, forward Elias Pettersson won the 2018-19 Calder, while Buffalo Sabres sniper Victor Olofsson cannot be ignored for 2019-20. For the sake of simplicity, this post’s deeper discussion will mostly focus on Makar and Hughes, though.

Makar, Hughes both light up scoreboards

First, the part you likely already know: both of these smaller defensemen can score.

With eight goals and 28 points in just 29 games, Makar dazzles the most. That said, Hughes is no slouch, generating 27 points in 37 games. Hughes managed 15 power-play points already, which earns a tie for second-best among all NHL defensemen. (Makar looms not all that far behind with 12 PPP, tying the likes of Dougie Hamilton and Roman Josi despite missing time with injuries.)

Nathan MacKinnon already ranks Makar among the best — not just among the best rookies.

“I am surprised,” MacKinnon said, via the Canadian Press in early December. “In the playoffs he was so amazing, but I think he’s the most dynamic defenceman in the league.”

Expect Makar’s production to settle down — even electric defensemen don’t steadily shoot at 13.8 percent — but not to an extent that he won’t remain dangerous for the Avs.

Makar and Hughes: more than just scorers

Look, there’s no denying that Makar and Hughes are being played to their biggest strengths. While both average more than 20 minutes of ice time per game (Hughes’ average: 21:20; Makar: 20:10), they’re both logging less than 10 seconds of penalty kill time each night.

Penalizing them too much for that can be silly, particularly since such decisions sometimes boil down to coaches being too timid.

Either way, their overall play is remarkable.

Consider this side-by-side RAPM chart comparison of their even-strength play, via Evolving Hockey:

Both excel by any standards, not just “rookie defensemen” standards.

Hughes recently achieved the rare goal of surviving a game against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with his dignity intact, drawing praise.

“For sure, he surprises me,” Jay Beagle said of Hughes on Monday, via Sportsnet. “I knew he was a great skater coming in. You could tell that from Day 1. Great with the puck. But there are obviously things that you learn about a guy just from playing more games with him, (and) his play away from the puck and his reads, it takes a long time for some guys to get that. He has it right away, which is good for us.”

Hughes and Makar aren’t making many big mistakes

Neither Hughes nor Makar are giving their coaches many excuses to plant them on the bench. (Hockey coaches almost trip over their feet to chastise a young player for a bad penalty or turnover.)

You could argue that Makar’s most impressive stat so far isn’t his wild 28 points in 29 games. Instead, “200 Hockey Men” might lean on Makar’s zero penalty minutes so far. Hughes rarely makes trips to the box, either, with a mere eight PIM in 37 games.

Olofsson also shines

Olofsson deserves credit for making this more than just a race between Makar and Hughes.

People might have been too quick to dismiss Olofsson because of just how hot his shooting start was, as he remains extremely impressive. His 16 goals easily leads all rookies, as Dominik Kubalik is the only other in double digits with 10. Olofsson also leads all rookies with 34 points in 38 games. Olofsson ties Makar with a rookies-leading three game-winning goals.

Makar and Hughes stand above Olofsson from an all-around standpoint, in my opinion. Olofsson’s Evolving Hockey RAPM charts provide some context:

Regardless, if Hughes, Makar, and Olofsson stay in the ballparks of their current play, they’d make for a formidable trio of Calder Trophy finalists. Hockey fans — not just Canucks, Sabres, and Avs fans — should consider themselves lucky.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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