Rookie phenoms Hughes, Makar making NHL look easy

Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes and Adam Fox remember playing in the outdoor game between Canada and USA during the 2018 World Juniors that USA won in a shootout.

Halfway through Monday’s video conference involving the National Hockey League’s historic class of rookie defencemen, Colorado Avalanche blueliner Cale Makar was asked about his “welcome-to-the-NHL moment.”

Makar’s debut came during last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs when he was rushed into the Avalanche lineup against the Calgary Flames just two days after losing the U.S. college championship game with the University of Massachusetts.

“I was getting ready, just for warmups that first game, and obviously you’re pretty nervous,” Makar said. “You don’t know what to expect. We’re lined up in the hallway and (teammate) Tyson Barrie just comes up to me and pats me on the shoulder and goes: ‘It’s an easy league, kid.’ That was just kind of a funny one.”

What’s even funnier is Makar, then just 20, scored 16:02 into his first game. This season, the five-foot-11 defenceman from Calgary was second in Avalanche scoring, behind only superstar Nathan MacKinnon, with 12 goals and 50 points in 57 games before the NHL closed for the coronavirus on March 12.

It’s equally hilarious that Makar’s formidable freshman scoring still left him just second among rookie defenceman because Vancouver Canucks phenom Quinn Hughes had 53 points in 68 games. And in the last two months before the shutdown, Hughes led all NHL defencemen, including Norris Trophy favourites John Carlson of Washington and Roman Josi of Nashville, with 23 points in 25 games while leading Vancouver in average ice time at 22:47.

Hughes turned 20 last October. He is five-foot-10 and 170 pounds.

Makar was tied for sixth among scoring by defencemen the last two months only because he missed five games with an upper-body injury. New York Rangers rookie Adam Fox, the third player on Monday’s conference call, tied Makar with 18 points over that time and was up to 42 points in 70 games when the NHL paused.

The five-foot-11 Fox is 22 years old.

The NHL is not an easy league, but these dynamic defencemen are making it look that way.

A generation ago, Hughes, Makar and Fox may have had to struggle just for the chance to play in the NHL due to their size. Now, driven by their skating and puck skills, they’re already moving up among the top players at their position.

“I think we’re all lucky we went into good spots, good situations,” Hughes, who is from Michigan via Toronto, said of the rookies’ NHL landing spots. “We had coaching staffs that probably believed in us and put us in the right situations and spots. For me, going from college to the NHL, you obviously believe in yourself and you hope that you’re ready, but you never really know. So you kind of just hope you’re going into a good spot and it all kind of just works out.”

By November, Hughes was the Canucks’ best defenceman.

“I feel like there’s a new generation of defencemen coming in, whether they’re just small or mobile,” Makar said. “I think for us, we’re all kind of similar build in terms of our height and stuff. You just know when you’re ready. Regardless of the way that you go, I think the game’s just changing. It’s just becoming faster and definitely a more agile sport.”

Makar and Hughes will be Calder Trophy finalists this season in what could be one of the closest rookie-of-the-year votes in years. A ballot of 14 Sportsnet insiders earlier this month had Hughes and Makar tied for the Calder.

Makar missed 13 games with two separate injuries, so his points-per-game are better than Hughes’ (0.88 vs 0.78). But Hughes is a year younger, and actual age should always be a factor when the Professional Hockey Writers Association votes on the Calder. Chicago Blackhawk Dominik Kubalik, for instance, the leading scorer among rookie forwards with 30 goals in 68 games, is 24 years old and spent the last five seasons playing professionally in Europe.

Kubalik compared to Hughes or Makar is not an apples-to-apples discussion, although the younger defencemen will top the Calder ballot.

Since the NHL expanded to 12 teams in 1970, only eight defencemen have been named the top rookie. And the last time defencemen finished first and second for the award was when Ed Van Impe lost the 1967 Calder Trophy race to a guy named Bobby Orr.

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Hughes, who spent two seasons at the University of Michigan, never faced Makar in college hockey. But they’ve been watching each other from afar for a while.

“I always knew who he was since the draft,” Hughes said of Makar, who the Avalanche claimed fourth-overall, one spot before the Canucks drafted Elias Pettersson, last season’s Calder winner. “I was at the draft (in Chicago) and I watched him get drafted. I obviously knew he was really high-end. I’d say the first time I really closely watched him was last year in the (NHL) playoffs. I remember watching his first game with a couple of my buddies – I was back at Michigan – and he scored, like, 10 minutes in. And we were all like: ‘Oh my God, this is insane.’”

“The first time I kind of saw Quinn is we were knocked out of the (2018 NCAA) playoffs after my first year at U-Mass,” Makar said. “We had a bunch of us go up. . . to watch the regionals. That was kind of the first time I got to watch Quinn live. I was like: ‘Damn, his skating is pretty legit.’”

Hughes was drafted seventh overall by the Canucks that spring.

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Hughes has been rollerblading with his brothers around the Canton, Mich., family home to help stay in shape during the NHL shutdown. Makar has ordered some road skates for himself.

“I saw the video of Quinn and his brothers playing (and) figured I’d better suit up myself,” Makar explained.

Got to keep up.

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