VANCOUVER — If you really want to see the face of a changing game, it appeared on the NHL video conference call Monday that followed the Calder Trophy announcement.
It belonged to rosy-cheeked Cale Makar, the 21-year-old from the Colorado Avalanche who became just the third defenceman in 16 years to be named the NHL’s rookie of the year. He outpointed Vancouver Canucks blue-liner Quinn Hughes, who is a year younger, even smaller than the five-foot-11 Makar and just as dynamic, 1,538 to 1,337 in balloting by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
Sure, we’re in a golden age of young talent in the league with superstar forwards like Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel and Leon Draisaitl. But forwards have always done forwards things in the NHL.
It’s on defence where the ever-quicker game has evolved most dramatically in the last five years.
If the Dallas Stars win the Stanley Cup, 21-year-old defenceman Miro Heiskanen is the most likely Conn Smythe winner who doesn’t wear goalie pads.
Makar and Hughes were point-per-game players in the playoffs until the Avalanche and Canucks were eliminated in the conference semifinals. The best player on the Vegas Golden Knights was mobile, 25-year-old defenceman Shea Theodore.
All these guys defend by having the puck, by skating and attacking and forcing the other team to defend them.
It is a revolution.
“I’m very honored just to be recognized in that group,” Makar told reporters from his home in Calgary. “You add even more guys such as Adam Fox, as well. I think it’s just a new time in the league. Coaches and organizations are giving young guys chances to come up on the back end and guys are taking advantage of that. I think for us, it’s just being able to move with the game. Our main assets are our skating and we’re able to use that to our advantage.”
Fox, a 22-year-old New York Rangers defenceman who is also five-foot-11, was fourth in Calder voting and narrowly missed making it an all-defence group of finalists.
Hughes, who became the first defenceman since Brian Leetch in 1989 to lead NHL rookies in scoring when he posted 53 points in 68 games for the Canucks, admitted last week he closely follows what Makar and Heiskanen and other young defencemen do.
“Of course, I watch,” he told Vancouver reporters. “I obviously watch those guys because they’re fun to watch, and I also want to see if I can learn anything or take anything from their games. You’re always hearing about them. People are saying: ‘Did you see this goal or see that goal.’ That just motivates me to see what I can do.”
Hughes and Makar will be pushing each other to be better for the next decade.
“It’s awesome; I love comparisons,” Makar said. “I feel like we have very similar styles of play. I think it’s important, especially as a young guy, you’re able to watch other guys play whether it’s veterans in the league like (Roman) Josi or (Victor) Hedman or younger guys like Hughes and Heiskanen. I think you need to be able to take little things from everybody’s game and kind of add those aspects to your game in order to improve.”
Buffalo has 20-year-old defenceman Rasmus Dahlin. Zach Werenski, 23, is in Columbus, Thomas Chabot, 23, in Ottawa, and there is Charlie McAvoy, 22, in Boston and Mikhail Sergachev, 22, on Tampa.
“Gone are the big, strong defencemen that chipped it off the glass and out,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said. “You’ve got to have guys that can make that first pass and have the mobility to get the puck and make a play. We’ve seen in the last five years, this new generation of defencemen are so skilled and play up and down the ice.
“We used to talk about the low cycle, but now there’s a high cycle where guys like Quinn and Heiskanen and Makar can spin away (from pressure) inside the blue line and make plays. It’s fun to watch.”
Makar’s name on the Calder Trophy will be next to Hughes’ teammate, Elias Pettersson’s, as the Canucks missed a chance to be the first team since the 1967 and 1968 Boston Bruins to have consecutive rookies of the year.
Including winger Brock Boeser’s runner-up finish to New York Islander Mathew Barzal in the 2018 Calder race, Vancouver is the first franchise since the 1969-71 Rangers to have a rookie finish in the top three in voting three years in a row.
“I haven’t really thought about that,” Benning said. “All three of them had really good first years. But we didn’t draft them to win the Calder Trophy, we drafted them to try to build a championship team.
“Quinn is everything we thought he was going to be. I think the one thing I didn’t figure on was the impact he would have on the rest of our players. We always say in scouting how you want to draft players who make the players around them better. Quinn made the players around him better. He made his defence partner better, made our forwards better, made our whole team better.”
He’s not the only defenceman doing this.