Analyzing what makes Cale Makar different from other great defencemen

Ahead of the Stanley Cup Final, Justin Bourne dives into the tape to take a closer look at what makes Cale Makar so effective in all areas of the game.

A couple things are true about Cale Makar.

One, is that you already know he’s great. Through three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs he’s put up 22 points in 14 games, when things are supposed to have gotten “harder.” Twenty-two points would’ve put him inside the top-100 defencemen in scoring this past 82-game season, tying him for 93rd with P.K. Subban. So yeah. You already know Makar is great, and you already know he’s playing well. Gambling odds have him as the front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy heading into the Stanley Cup Final.

The other truth, though, is that he hasn’t re-invented hockey. There’s the temptation when a player is exceptional to be like “nobody’s ever played the game like this before!” But hockey history (and its present) is littered with players who’ve done the specific things Makar does to varying degrees. I’m just not sure we’ve seen them combined quite like this, or have each one at elite levels like this, at least not in the modern day. I mention “modern” day because the most common comparison has been Bobby Orr, who dominated then like Makar is starting to dominate now. I mean this without exaggeration: Cale Makar is my favourite player in the NHL to watch play, Connor McDavid included.

The latter is amazing to watch, like the seven or eight seconds that comprise a straightaway drag race.

Makar is amazing to see, like watching a lioness hunt. He lurks until it’s time to pounce, then he executes with suddenness and fluidity.

Let’s take a look at all the tools Makar uses to dominate the NHL in 2022, and suss out how he’s become one of the best two or three defencemen in the league at just 23 years old.

Patience and raw skating combined

We’ll start here because without it, everything else is irrelevant. This is the combination for me that makes it all possible.

After living in Arizona I learned you’re better to get stung by an adult scorpion, which only doles out the little venom necessary per sting to get rid of their foe, while the younger scorpion is more likely to go both barrels with full venom whether necessary or not. (This article brought to you by National Geographic, apparently.) I mention this because Makar is the older scorpion. He doesn’t use his speed in flat-out blasts like some of the league’s fastest players, who often don’t know how to play at other speeds. He holds on to what he needs so he can change speeds and add surprise to an otherwise impressive top gear.

This first clip here is Makar defending, leading to the play going the other way, and you can see his pure patience. He barely takes a stride, winding side to side, looking for help and for openings. That’s the lurking part. The next clip is him playing 200 feet of the ice, taking a rush up the rink and shooting, but then you see the true speed he has when he’s more desperate to get back:

The 25% fakes

While the whole Makar machine is built on the back of his patience and skating, the features he’s built on to it are deadly. The purpose of a fake is to get your opponent off-balance thinking you’re going to do something else, then taking advantage of their momentary weight shift. The less-gifted execute full elaborate fakes, and miss the tiny windows to exploit their opposition. Makar makes tiny fakes, executing maybe a quarter of a normal fake (most often with his feet), which leads defenders to think he’s going to do something else for just a nanosecond.

He then accelerates into that nanosecond. Watch how he changes the route of the Flyers PK F1 with his foot position at the top of the circles, making it look like he’s going to drop the puck. Then he crosses over hard left once in the neutral zone, pushing the defender over a step before going back right and charging at the open lane:

Against the Flyers again, Makar uses a feint with his hips – he loves the heel-to-heel fake, which he only starts here – to act like he may run it back to the near flank, just enough to open up the shooting lane.

You can see how well he walks the blue line laterally there, which we also see in defenders today like Quinn Hughes and Adam Fox. That leads us to…

The lateral movement, yes, but what that opens up down the wall

Makar is a nightmare for opposing wingers, whose job it is to defend him, and block his shots. Summer hockey camps often pair kids off and have them take turns playing the mirror game, where the kids try to copy the person making the initial motions left and right, forward and back. Makar would leave a trail of broken ankles in his wake if anyone tried that with him.

Given that he so casually and swiftly glides left and right along the blue, defending wingers often rush ahead a half step to not allow that shooting lane to open up, which is when Makar kills them back down the wall after one of those quarter-fakes. Watch three different Predators wingers try to contend with him here:

The ability to take contact

There are D-men in the NHL – not many, but a few – who can do things similar to what you’re seeing above, but few can do what Makar does while confidently defending, and more importantly, confidently taking contact. That allows a guy like Makar an extra half-second on puck touches.

The young Avs D-man is a reasonably stocky guy for someone a breath under six feet tall, and he doesn’t get pushed around. You saw him handle himself in traffic at the start of the patience/skating video, but watch these two little plays against the Oilers in the playoffs, where he isn’t rushed into a play because he’s not afraid to have the opposition lean on him. Note too, that it’s Zach Hyman and Connor McDavid going after him in these clips:

And last but not least,

He takes what he’s given

A major divide exists between the public and the teams over what to do with certain hyper-skilled players, who can occasionally do electric things and create offence. The public sees the fanciest of the highlights, and they don’t like that teams punish for the turnovers that often come with them – you have to takes chances to make some plays, after all. (In many cases, fans are right that these talents deserve a wider berth to develop.)

With Makar though, it’s not often you see him try to put the puck through the defender’s skates, or under their triangle like some of the game’s best highlight-makers. He moves the whole defender with his feet and hips and body position, like in the many clips above. He creates ice for himself, which eliminates the stickhandling in traffic that can lead to turnovers.

In sum, if you give him room, he’ll just say thanks and take it. Like when Kirby Dach thought Makar might pass and locked up his feet, so Makar just said “Okey doke,” spun and took that ice, before putting Marc-Andre Fleury on a poster.

For a guy who isn’t blessed with pure size, Cale Makar is otherwise the complete package. He defends well, he has vision and hands and everything else you can see in these clips. Defencemen very rarely win the Hart Trophy, but this kid is going to play himself into the conversation in the years ahead.

For now, he may have to settle for a Conn Smythe Trophy, if only his team can find a way past the two-time defending Cup champions.

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