It’s that time of the year, the final push toward the finish line, both for NHL teams competing in the regular-season and in those of us who’ve survived another winter and are ready for spring and Hot Avs summer.
It’s also the last chance for players making their cases for the annual NHL Awards to prove to voting members of the Professional Hockey Writer’s Association, those familiar broadcasters you see nightly on your telescreens, and the general managers who decide goaltender of the year, that they are deserving of all the fame and accolades and the place in the annals of league history that comes with winning the Hart or Calder or Lady Byng or Vezina or Selke trophies or the Jack Adams Award.
Some awards races, like the Patrice Bergeron/Frank Selke award for the best defensive forward, seem fairly locked up by the regular faces (ahem, Bergeron). Others are coming down to the wire, like for the most valuable player or the rookie of the year. And some are subjected to the recent and home team bias of the region in which the voter exists.
So while it’s easy to say Cale Makar for Norris is both the right choice for the Norris Trophy and a homer decision, the fact is that the 23-year-old wunderkind has made splashes around the entire league this season. Plays like his undressing Kirby Dach before moving in on Marc-Andre Fleury and tossing a backhander into the twine have become as much a part of the current hockey zeitgeist as whatever mind-bending move Trevor Zegras comes up with on a nightly basis.
And while Makar’s moves have no-doubt earned some two minutes hate from opposing players and irked fans, what Makar has done on both sides of the puck has gained the attention of his NHL-colleagues and their coaches.
“It’s obviously a guy that’s back there that helps elevate his team to that next level, and generally he’s always the guy that’s getting points. But that’s what you would do if you’re elevating your team,” Carolina Hurricanes bench boss, two-time Franke Selke Trophy winner, Stanley Cup Champion, and Jack Adams Award winner Rod Brind’Amour said of what his criteria for a Norris-worthy candidate is. “Obviously, they have one here that’s top of the list, in my opinion, because he does so much for this group offensively, but also you notice him every time he’s on the ice. Obviously, that would be worthy of my vote.”
Despite the fact that 2020 Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi has recently made an incredible push and 2018 winner Victor Hedman is seemingly always worthy of consideration, this award has belonged to Makar for some time now—an argument I’ve made previously.
Everyone has seen what the Calgary native has done on offense, but what goes overlooked is just how good he’s been on the other side of the puck. In fact, his defensive play has been so solid that it’s often—unfairly—attributed to playing with another overlooked rear guard, Devon Toews.
“I don’t think it should hurt it. Every team’s built different,” Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar said of the situation. “He’s got a great partner in Toews. I believe both of those guys should be candidates, but there are some guys around the league, right? The list is going to narrow.”
Now obviously, knowing Makar has a solid horse in the race, his own coach is going to canvas for his player, but the reasons why Bednar feels so strongly about Makar is what makes him a deserving candidate.
“He is, for me, the guy, and it’s partly because what he’s added to his game now with us. The offensive dynamic player that you see every night, that was there right from the start. Obviously, it’s improving. You look at his numbers, right? He’s as dangerous as any forward in the league,” Bednar said of his Norris criteria. “But if you look at a guy like Hedman, who’s won it, he leads his team in power-play ice time, penalty-kill ice time, regular ice time. You got to be able to do it all. You can’t just be an offensive guy and then go win the Norris unless you’re running away with the points total by 30 points or whatever. And even then I don’t agree with those votes.”
“I think you got to be a strong defender, a relied upon guy; be able to play against other team’s top guys every night. Take on those defensive responsibilities playing 5-on-6, 6-on-5, penalty kill, which now Cale does all of that, right? It’s the growth of his game.
Added Bednar: “I think you have to be able to do all of that. And Cale doesn’t just do it now, he’s really good at it. He’s a strong penalty killer for us. He plays in all situations. He’s on late in the game when we [need] a lead. He’s on late in the game when we’re defending a lead, and that’s the sort of thing I think you got to see on a nightly basis from a guy if he’s going to be considered for that.”
Makar, in just his third full campaign with the Avalanche, is at that level of all-around dominance. It’s not easy defending in a league full of high-power offense, but he does it. It’s not easy to stand out amongst your peers, but he’s doing it. And sure, the makeup of this squad is certainly one poised to go the distance, full of all the top-tier talent you can imagine. Should that be a knock on Makar’s accomplishments any more than it should if you’re considering Mikko Rantanen or Nathan MacKinnon or Nazem Kadri or even Darcy Kuemper for the Hart Trophy?
“The one that gets complicated, right, is the Hart because it’s most valuable to your team. You got to kind of study the whole team. So I think you get guys like [Leon] Draisaitl, [Connor] McDavid, MacKinnon, Rantanen, and everyone wants to see it as a negative. ‘Well they play with one of the other best players in the world.’ They don’t control that, you know what I mean? I think guys can get overlooked for that,” Bednar said. “I think there’s a case to be made for a lot of guys and all those trophies personally.”
My guess for Hart? Igor Shesterkin.
My guess for Norris? It’s going to be closer than it should be…