DENVER — The name floats in the ether, now, along with Cale Makar’s, put there by Wayne Gretzky. On TNT’s hockey show, Gretzky, arguably the best to ever play, compared Makar to Bobby Orr, the transcendent defenseman some insist he was even better than Gretzky.
Patrick Roy said that Makar could become the best defenseman in history, suggesting that he could outplay Orr. Others have weighed in, praising the brilliant skating, stick handling and playmaking of Makar, a prodigy from Alberta, Canada, who helped lead the Colorado Avalanche to a 1-0 lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Finals. the Stanley Cup. .
Hall of Fame center Phil Esposito played alongside Orr for nine seasons in Boston and finds it hard to believe anyone could be as good as Orr, the great No. 4, who single-handedly turned defense into a weapon of war. power never seen before. offensive, running across the ice, passing defenders like helpless statues.
“Makar is very, very good,” said Esposito, now a radio host for the Lightning games. “But Bobby was the greatest. I will say this: the child is close. He dictates the game like Bobby did.”
None of this is to say that Makar is still a better player, relative to his era, than Orr, or that he will have a better career than Orr, who won eight Norris trophies as the best defenseman in the league and two Stanley Cups, in what equaled 10 healthy years.
But Makar excels at skating and stick-handling maneuvers that even Orr and his colleagues didn’t contemplate in the 1970s, or for many years afterward.
Orr revved up his stance and did spin-o-branch moves on the blue line that left jaws dropping. But he never danced and carved crescent-shaped showers of ice into the blue line. And he didn’t walk the line backwards with the puck looming on his stick like Makar does. Nobody did those kinds of maneuvers when Orr was playing, in part because they lacked modern skates and training methods. As Esposito pointed out, Orr-era players spent their summers working, while today’s players skate year-round.
Orr didn’t spread his hips, click his heels together or baffle defenders the way some skaters, notably Sidney Crosby, can today. But few do it with as much ease and enjoyment as Makar.
“It’s special, because it’s faster than the others,” said Mikhail Sergachev, a keen advocate of the Lightning. “He knows how much time and space he has, and he uses it to his advantage. You think you have it, but you don’t. He only uses you as bait and as a screen. It is very, very dangerous.
Sergachev has played for five seasons and won two Stanley Cups with the Lightning. He is a student of the game and particularly his own position. When he sees that Makar has the puck on the blue line, he and his teammates are ready for just about anything.
With a terrifying lateral move never seen before, Makar could fake to his left, then his right, leaving a defender stumbling on the ice as he skids backwards along the blue line looking to pass or shoot with either foot. . It’s the kind of move that’s almost more reminiscent of a basketball point guard with deft dribbling than hockey players of the past. Watching Makar is like watching the Stephen Curry of hockey, and it leads to success.
In this season’s playoffs, Makar has 5 goals and 17 assists, and his 22 points lead the Avalanche into what could end in the team’s first championship since 2001. Standing in the way is the Lightning, who are seeking their third straight league championship. Stanley Cup. with magnificent defenders of their own.
“They are trying to build a dynasty,” Makar said Tuesday. “We’re trying to build a legacy.”
Makar’s legacy is already under construction. He is a finalist for the Norris Trophy, along with Victor Hedman of the Lightning and Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators, whom the Avalanche swept in four games in the first round. (Makar had 3 goals and 7 assists in that series). Makar is only 23 years old and Esposito believes he will win at least three or four Norris Trophies.
In the regular season, he had 28 goals and 86 points and a positive plus-minus 48 rating, second only, among NHL defenders, to teammate Devon Toews’s plus-52 (whom Makar humbly calls the “driving force” of the Avalanche defense).
But Makar’s game is appreciable beyond the statistics. He is becoming one of the most entertaining players to watch, a visionary on the ice with skating skills that rival the best figure skaters and stick-handling skills that make strikers envious. He entices defending wingers to come forward and engage him, then slides sideways, always with the puck loaded in his stick.
“He never looks at the puck when he handles it,” Sergachev said. “That’s the main thing about him when you see him on the blue line. He is always driving the puck and looking at the net or other players. That’s how he always finds good plays.”
Makar said he’s always loved skating and going through the drills necessary to perfect skating on the edges of his blades to build speed and trickery. But as talented as he was, growing up in Alberta as a Calgary Flames fan, Makar took an unusual route to the NHL, choosing to attend the University of Massachusetts after the Avalanche drafted him fourth overall. in 2017.
Greg Cronin, the coach of the Colorado Eagles, the Avalanche’s AHL affiliate, was working as an assistant coach with the Islanders in 2017 and interviewed Makar before the draft. He wondered why Makar wouldn’t break into major youth hockey like so many rising stars. Makar insisted that he had committed to playing two years at UMass before turning pro.
“Of all the interviews I did over those years, that one stood out,” Cronin said. “The honesty and conviction in her response was remarkable, and she made it happen.”
Cronin later joined the Avalanche organization, and although he never trained Makar, he has been on the ice with him at boot camp and said that Makar might be the best skater he has ever seen.
“I call it joystick hockey,” Cronin said. “It’s like someone is controlling it from above, moving it up, back and then, bang, sideways. It will take half a step forward to make you bite, and then lunge sideways. The defender is finished.”
UMass has now become a title contender, winning the Frozen Four in 2021, but it wasn’t considered in the top tier of college hockey destinations, like Minnesota, Wisconsin or Boston University. Makar made it work.
In a remarkable four-day span in April 2019, Makar won the Hobey Baker Award as the best college player, played (and lost) in the national title game, signed with the Avalanche and then scored in his NHL debut, against Calgary, no. less.
“He helps us recruit every night he plays,” Minutemen coach Greg Carvel said. “That’s his legacy, that he maybe the best player in the world played on this show. The kids want to play where Cale did.”
Carvel said Makar came to Amherst with his unique skating ability already in place, but noted that Makar was smart enough to understand that he needed more time in college to build strength and endurance on the ice before entering the NHL. When he first arrived, Makar exhibited remarkable skill. , but he was limited in how often he could deploy it.
“I just remember going down to the end of the bench and saying, ‘Get Cale out more,’” Carvel recalled. “He just couldn’t do it. It was a sign that he was not ready.”
Still, Joe Sakic, the Avalanche general manager and the team’s former star player, called Carvel after Makar’s freshman year at UMass and told the coach that the Avalanche intended to offer Makar a contract to join the team. immediate. But Makar stayed, knowing that he needed to get stronger.
The scariest thing for the rest of the NHL is that Makar continues to improve. Carvel said some of the flashier moves he makes on the blue line now weren’t apparent in college, saying Makar’s skating and defensive play, and uncanny instant shooting ability, had been developed in the NHL. , with more to come.
“I have worked in hockey forever; I’ve coached in the NHL,” Carvel said. “There are very few people I would pay money to watch play hockey. Maybe five people. He is obviously one of them. He is pure entertainment.”
Orr was like that too. Fans couldn’t take their eyes off him as he collected the puck behind his own net, he skewered defenders as he picked up speed on the ice or spun 360 degrees on the blue line and attacked terrified goalies.
“Bobby was Bobby,” Esposito said. “Let this kid have his own career. But it sure is fun to watch.”