Is Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar the Stephen Curry of hockey?

DENVER — The name floats in the ether, now, alongside Cale Makar, put there by Wayne Gretzky. On TNT’s hockey program, Gretzky, arguably the best to ever play the game, compared Makar to Bobby Orr, the transcendent defenseman some said was even better than Gretzky.

Patrick Roy said Makar could become the best defender in history, suggesting that he might surpass Orr. Others chimed in, praising the brilliant skating, stickhandling and play of Makar, a prodigy from Alberta, Canada, who helped lead the Colorado Avalanche to a 1- 0 over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Finals. .

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 big No. 4, who turned to him only defense into an unprecedented combat weapon. offensive, rushing onto the ice, overtaking defenders as if they were helpless statues.

“Makar is really, really good,” said Esposito, now a radio host for the Lightning Games. “But Bobby was the greatest. I will say this: the kid is close. He dictates the game like Bobby did.

None of this is to say that Makar is still a better player, compared 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 game. league and two Stanley Cups, in what amounted to 10 healthy years.

But Makar excels at skating and stickhandling maneuvers that weren’t even contemplated by Orr and his colleagues in the 1970s, or for many years after.

Orr revolutionized his stance and did blueline spin-o-rama moves that left his jaws hanging. But he never danced and sculpted blue line crescent shaped ice showers. And he didn’t run down the line with the threatening puck on his stick like Makar does. No one did those kinds of tricks when Orr was playing, partly because they lacked modern skates and training methods. As Esposito noted, players in Orr’s day spent their summers working, whereas today’s players skate year-round.

Orr didn’t open his hips, lock his heels together and confuse defenders like some skaters, notably Sidney Crosby, can today. But few do it with as much ease and fun as Makar.

“He’s special, because he’s faster than everyone else,” said Mikhail Sergachev, a shrewd Lightning defenseman. “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 just uses you as bait and as a screen. He is very, very dangerous.

Sergachev played for five seasons and won two Stanley Cups with the Lightning. He is a student of the game and particularly of his own position. When he sees Makar has the puck on the blue line, he and his teammates are ready for almost anything.

With a scary lateral move never seen before, Makar could fake to his left, then to his right, leaving a defender to stumble across the ice as he skates backwards along the blue line looking to pass or shoot the either foot. It’s the kind of move that’s almost more reminiscent of a basketball point guard with a deft dribbling grip than it is of hockey players of the past. Watching Makar is like watching the Stephen Curry of hockey, and it leads to success.

In the playoffs this season, Makar has 5 goals and 17 assists, and his 22 points lead the Avalanche in what could end in the team’s first championship since 2001. The Lightning stand in the way, looking of its third consecutive Stanley Cup championship, with formidable defensemen of their own.

“They are trying to build a dynasty,” Makar said on Tuesday. “We are trying to build a legacy.”

Makar’s legacy is already well under construction. He is a Norris Trophy finalist, along with Victor Hedman of the Lightning and Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators, which the Avalanche swept in four games in the first round. (Makar has 3 goals and 7 assists in this streak.) Makar is only 23 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 plus-48 differential, second only among NHL defensemen behind the plus-52 of teammate Devon Toews (who Makar humbly calls the “driving force”) of the Avalanche defense).

But Makar’s game is significant beyond the statistics. He is evolving into 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 abilities that make forwards envious. He encourages the defending wingers to move forward to engage him, then he slides to the side, still with the loaded puck on his stick.

“He never looks at the puck when he’s handling it,” Sergachev said. “That’s the most important thing about him when you watch him on the blue line. He is still holding the puck and watching the net or other players. That’s how he always finds good games.

Makar said he has always enjoyed skating and doing the drills necessary to perfect skating on the edges of his blades to generate speed and deception. But as gifted as he was, having grown up in Alberta as a Calgary Flames fan, Makar took an unusual route to the NHL, opting to attend the University of Massachusetts after being drafted by the Avalanche with the fourth choices, in total, in 2017.

Greg Cronin, coach of the Colorado Eagles, the Avalanche’s AHL affiliate, worked as an assistant coach with the Islanders in 2017 and interviewed Makar before the draft. He wondered why Makar wouldn’t go into major junior hockey, like many up-and-coming stars. Makar insisted he had committed to playing two years at UMass before turning professional.

“Of all the interviews I’ve done over the years, this one stood out,” Cronin said. “The honesty and conviction of his response was remarkable, and he delivered.”

Cronin then joined the Avalanche organization, and although he never coached Makar, he was on the ice with him in training camp and said Makar was perhaps the best skater he ever had. he has ever seen.

“I call it controller hockey,” Cronin said. “It’s like someone controlling it from above, moving it up, back and forth, bang, sideways. It’ll take a half step forward to bite you, then it’ll will throw sideways. The defender is done.

UMass has now emerged as a title contender, winning the Frozen Four in 2021, but was not considered in the top tier of college hockey destinations, like Minnesota, Wisconsin or Boston University. Makar made it work.

In a remarkable four-day streak in April 2019, Makar won the Hobey Baker Award for Best Collegiate Player, played (and lost) in the national title game, signed with the Avalanche, then scored. in his NHL debut – against Calgary, no less.

“He helps us recruit every night he plays,” Minutemen coach Greg Carvel said. “It’s his legacy, that maybe the best player in the world played in this program. 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 savvy enough to realize he needed more time in college to build his strength and endurance on ice before entering the NHL. , but he was limited in how often he could deploy it.

“I just remember going to the end of the bench 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’s general manager and former star player for the team, called Carvel after Makar’s first year at UMass and told the coach the Avalanche intended to offer Makar a contract to join the team immediately. But Makar stayedknowing 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 flashiest moves he pulls off on the blue line weren’t evident in college, and he said Makar’s skating and defensive play – and incredible instantaneous shooting ability – had been developed in the NHL, with more to come.

“I’ve always worked in hockey; I coached in the NHL,” Carvel said. “There are very few people I would pay to watch hockey play. Maybe five people. He is, of course, one of them. It 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, lined up defenders as he picked up speed on the ice, or spun 360 degrees at the blue line and attacked terrified goaltenders .

Bobby was Bobby“said Esposito. “Let this kid have his own career. But he sure is fun to watch.

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