Cale Makar set the bar awfully high in 2021-22.
At the age of 23, he put together one of the greatest single seasons from a defenseman that you’ll ever see. 86 points in 77 regular season games earned him the first Norris Trophy of his career. But he wasn’t done just yet.
He followed up an incredible regular season with a dominant postseason, registering 29 points in 20 games. Those absurd numbers not only helped the Colorado Avalanche win their first Stanley Cup in 21 years, but it earned Makar the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP.
You can understand why expectations for him this season were through the roof. So what has he done as a follow-up?
Well, he’s evolved.
To many, it seems like Makar has taken a step back from the historic season he had last year. The reality is, he’s taken on more responsibility, and has had to adjust his game because of it. Change can be tough for some to handle, but not Makar. Win or lose, he’s always willing to talk to the media.
Off the ice, his leadership is more apparent. On the ice? Well, let’s just say he’s been on the ice a lot.
Last season, Makar only had to play 30 minutes in a game three times. That was over the course of 77 games. This year, he’s already crossed that threshold eight times in 54 games. That’s a little less than 15% of the games he’s played.
Injuries and the revolving door of defensemen the team have played has forced the Avalanche to lean on Makar (and Toews) more than they would like too. In turn, Makar has had to adjust his game a little bit. Halfway through the season in 21-22, the Avalanche started playing Makar on the penalty kill. This year, his average time-on-ice per game on the penalty kill has doubled to nearly three minutes per game.
And speaking of time on ice.
It wasn’t like the Avalanche didn’t lean on Makar heavily last season. He still finished sixth in the NHL in time-on-ice per game. But the Avalanche were so dominant, that they didn’t need to overplay him during the regular season.
This year, it’s been different.
The Avalanche have been fighting for their lives just to keep their heads above water. Injuries, inconsistent play, and the loss of key players over the summer has led to a much tougher season. That has forced the team to rely on Makar. A lot. And he’s been ready.
Makar currently leads the NHL in time-on-ice per game, and has all year long. The gap between Makar and Drew Doughty, who sits in second place, is 22 seconds a game. That adds up a little bit over time. Last year, the gap between first and second place was a whopping one second.
Last season, I asked Jared Bednar what the minute mark they would ideally like to keep Makar around. His answer? Around 24 minutes a night. Part of that is due to the amount of skating Makar does in a game. With a few less shifts per game, Makar would have more energy for those dynamic rushes up the ice.
This year, we’ve certainly seen less of those rushes up and down the ice. That doesn’t mean he’s playing poorly. That means he’s evolving. He understands that he’s been needed more in other areas, and he’s adjusting.
But the offense? It’s definitely still there.
Last year, he was at 1.12 points-per-game. A crazy number for a defenseman over the course of a full season. This year? He’s at 1.07. It might not seem like it, but he’s still producing offense like crazy. He’s generating shots at an absurd rate, averaging 4.63 attempts per game at even strength, up a little bit from the year before.
And the team is even better with him on the ice than they were last season. The Avalanche are controlling 56.12% of the shot attempts with Makar on the ice, up about .4% from last season. He leads the team in that regard.
So why aren’t we hearing his name come up more when it comes to the Norris Trophy? Only Erik Karlsson is averaging more points-per-game than Makar. Josh Morrisey? He’s having a great season for Winnipeg. They also don’t even use him on the penalty kill. And Adam Fox? Well, I’m not going down that rabbit hole.
Expectations will always be high with Makar. At just 24, he’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer with the resume he’s already put together. And coming off one of the most dominant 12 month stretches of hockey you’ll ever see, it might seem like this year has been a slight step back.
But it hasn’t been. He’s still special. He’s just going about things a little differently this year.
And he, once again, deserves to be in the conversation for the Norris Trophy.