Earlier this week Cale Makar scored one of the best goals of the season to give the Avalanche a 4-3 overtime win against the Blackhawks. It was a breathtaking display of skill as he left Kirby Dach in his dust, walked in alone, and beat Marc-Andre Fleury with some lightning quick hands and ridiculous backhand shot just under the crossbar. It is easy to watch a play like that and forget the player doing that is a defenseman and not a playmaking center or winger.
But Makar is starting to make highlight reel plays a routine part of his nightly performance. With only 126 regular season games on his NHL resume, he has already started to cement himself as not only an elite defenseman, but also one of the league’s elite players. In terms of overall impact he is already, at worst, the second best player on a Stanley Cup contender (behind only Nathan MacKinnon) and it only seems to be a matter of when, and not if, he overtakes even him for that title.
In his first two full seasons he has claimed the rookie of the year award, is close to a point-per-game player as a defenseman, and has two top-10 Norris Trophy finishes, including his runner-up effort to Adam Fox a season ago. Barring injury, and assuming he maintains his current level of play, it seems like a certainty he will be a finalist again this season.
He is also chasing a number this season that has been an almost unreachable number for defensemen in the modern era — the 30-goal mark.
GO OFF, CALE MAKAR. 😳🤯
— NHL (@NHL) January 5, 2022
His game-winning goal in Chicago was already his 14th goal of the season in just his 25th game. My simple math skills tell me that 14 goals in 25 games would average out to a 46-goal pace over 82 games, which would put him among the league’s leaders regardless of position and completely lap the field among defensemen. Common sense also tells me that he is probably not going to maintain that exact pace because eventually his 20% shooting percentage is going to drop back down closer to his career average of 8-9%. So while he should maintain his overall impact as a player, the goals will probably — emphasis on probably — slow down a little.
But even if that happens he still has put himself into a pretty good position for a 30-goal season.
[NHL Power Rankings: Hurricanes stay on top; Islanders, Canucks improving]
Just for some perspective on how rare that number is for defensemen, only eight different defensemen have ever reached that mark: Bobby Orr (five times), Paul Coffey (four times), Denis Potvin (three times), Ray Bourque, Kevin Hatcher, Doug Wilson, Phil Housley, and Mike Green (all one time each). Almost all of those seasons came during the mid-1970s and 1980s when goal scoring was at an all-time high across the league. The only two players to do it since 1990 were Hatcher (1992-93) and Green (2008-09). Green’s season was especially noteworthy because he scored 31 goals in only 68 games, a truly herculean performance from a player whose prime was never fully appreciated across the league.
Back to Makar though. What does he need to do the rest of the way to hit that number?
Assuming he plays every remaining game for Colorado (53 games) he would need to score 16 goals the rest of the way. That is admittedly a very tall task for a defenseman, but if anybody is capable of doing that it might be him.
He is currently averaging 2.84 shots on goal per game. Over 53 games that would be another 151 shots on goal for the rest of the season. At his current shooting percentage (19.7%) that would be another 30 goals from this point on (which would put him over 45 for the season). That seems impossibly high.
So let’s project him to score on a more reasonable 12% of those shots. That would be 18 goals on 151 shots, which would put him just over the 30-goal mark for the season.
If he maintains that same shots per game average and simply shoots at the 8% mark he shot at his first two years in the league, that would give him another 12 goals, and give him 26 for the season, falling just short of the 30-goal mark but still one of the highest marks we have seen in decades. Only four defensemen have topped 25 goals since 2005 (Green’s 31-goal season, Brent Burns with 29 in 2016-17 and 27 in 2015-16, and Sheldon Souray with 26 in 2006-07).
When you combine his goal-scoring ability with the fact he is one of the best defensive players in the league, and an elite possession driver, and a one-man breakout from the defensive zone he is already one of the most complete and impactful players in the league and one of the engines that drives the Avalanche. And he is having a season for the ages. The scary thing about all of this? At age 23 he is probably only just now starting to play the best hockey of his career, while even better days might still be in front of him.