NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights. Pre-game coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
Update: Unfortunately, Cale Makar ranks among the Avalanche players who can’t play against the Golden Knights due to injury. Makar is considered day-to-day.
A recap of the Avs’ health situation:
Playing: MacKinnon, Toews, Bellemare
Out: Makar (day-to-day), Johnson, Calvert (back on ice this weekend), Francouz (LTIR)
AHL: Martin Kaut (injury) didn’t make the trip to California
In COVID-19 protocol: Jost, Landeskog, Girard
— Peter Baugh (@Peter_Baugh) February 14, 2021
There are a lot of reasons to expect the Avalanche to be set up for the type of consistent long-term success that could make them a Stanley Cup champion. They enter Sunday’s game against another Stanley Cup contender with a 7-3-1 record and returning after a 12-day layoff to open a four-game set with the Golden Knights.
They have a couple of superstars at the top of their lineup signed long-term (one of them, Nathan MacKinnon, to one of the most cap-friendly contracts in the league), they have one of the league’s deepest rosters, and most of their best and most important players are still at ages where they are either in the prime of their careers or just ready to enter the prime of their careers.
When you talk about this particular Avalanche team the discussion is usually centered around MacKinnon because, well, he is the best and most electrifying player on the roster. He is a game-changer on every shift.
[PRE-GAME COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]
But what makes the Avalanche so potentially great in the short-and long-term is not necessarily their superstar forwards.
It is their defense due to its insane skill level, incredible production, and long-term potential given most of their ages.
Erik Johnson (when healthy) is the only regular on the blue line older than age 26, while four of the players (Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, Bowen Byram, and Conor Timmins) are all age 22 or younger. They are all outstanding, but Makar as the reining Calder Trophy winner is clearly the best of the bunch. And he is taking a massive step forward in year two of his career. So massive, in fact, that he should be considered the early season favorite to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s best all-around defenseman. His production and overall player demands that sort of attention right now.
For starters, he enters play on Sunday averaging more than a point-per-game so far this season (12 points in 11 games) and riding a five-game point streak. He has also recorded at least one point in eight of the Avalanche’s first 11 games, including a pair of three-point games.
But it is not just the points that stand out. It is the way that he is helping to control the game in a way that almost no other defender in the league has been able to do this season.
[2020-21 NHL on NBC TV SCHEDULE]
Just consider some rankings on where Makar sits among the 184 defenders that have played at least 100 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season.
Shot attempt share: First (61.6 percent)
Shot attempts for/60 minutes: Second (66.5)
Shot attempts against/60 minutes: Fourth (41.4)
Scoring chances for/60 minutes: Fourth (31.8)
Scoring chances against/60 minutes: Sixth (17.1)
Scoring chance differential: First (65.1 percent)
Expected goals for/60 minutes: 13th (2.74)
Expected goals against/60 minutes: Second (1.40)
Expected goals differential: First (66.2 percent)
Goals for/60 minutes: Seventh (4.18)
Goals against/60 minutes: 32nd (1.61)
Of those 11 categories he is in the top-10 of nine of them, in the top-five of seven of them, in the top-two of five of them, and leading the league in three of them. That is complete and total domination from a 22-year-old, second-year player. Add that to his point-per-game average (second among defensemen, behind only Lightning superstar Victor Hedman) and there really is not another defenseman in the league that has been at his level across the board.
There is obviously still a significant portion of the season to be played and a lot can happen over the Avalanche’s next 45 games. But given that he finished in ninth place in the Norris voting a year ago as a rookie, and given how dominant he has been so far this season in all phases of the game, you have to assume that he is already a favorite to win it this season. Even if he does not, it seems like a strong bet to think there is one in his future.
The Avalanche are known for their forwards and offense, but the defense of Makar, Girard, Byram, Timmins, Devon Toews and Ryan Graves is quickly becoming one of the biggest strengths of the roster. Makar is by far the best of the bunch, and he is starting to play his way into the discussion among the best in the entire NHL.
[Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick]
NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe will take place Feb. 20 and Feb. 21 on the 18th fairway of the Edgewood Tahoe Resort. On Saturday, the Avalanche will face the Golden Knights at 3 p.m. ET on NBC. On Sunday, the Flyers and Bruins will meet at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.