DENVER — The name floats in the ether, now, alongside Cale Makar’s, 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 insist was even better than Gretzky.
Patrick Roy said Makar could become the best defenseman in history, suggesting he might surpass Orr. Others have chimed in, heaping praise on the brilliant skating, stick-handling and playmaking of Makar, a prodigy from Alberta, Canada, who has helped lead the Colorado Avalanche to a 1-0 lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Phil Esposito, the Hall of Fame center, played alongside Orr for nine seasons in Boston and has a hard time believing that anyone could be as good as Orr, the great No. 4, who single-handedly turned defense into a previously unseen weapon of offense, rushing up the ice, past defenders as if they were helpless statues.
“Makar is really, really good,” Esposito, now a radio announcer for Lightning games, said. “But Bobby was the greatest. I’ll say this: The kid is close. He dictates play like Bobby did.”
None of this is to say that Makar is a better player yet, relative to his era, than Orr was, or that he will have a better career than Orr, who won eight Norris trophies as the league’s best defenseman and two Stanley Cups, in what amounted to 10 healthy years.
But Makar excels at skating and stick-handling maneuvers that were not even contemplated by Orr and his colleagues back in the 1970s, or for many years after.
Orr revolutionized his position and made spin-o-rama moves at the blue line that left jaws hanging. But he never danced and carved crescent-shaped ice showers at the blue line. And he did not walk the line backward with the puck threateningly on his stick in quite the way Makar does. No one made those kinds of maneuvers when Orr played, in part because they lacked modern skates and training methods. As Esposito noted, players in Orr’s era spent their summers working, whereas players today skate year round.
Orr did not open his hips, put his heels together and befuddle defenders the way some skaters, most notably Sidney Crosby, can today. But few do it with as much ease and enjoyment as Makar.
“He’s special, because he’s quicker than everyone else,” said Mikhail Sergachev, an insightful defenseman for the Lightning. “He knows how much time and room he has, and he uses it to his advantage. You think you’ve got him, but you don’t. He just uses you as bait and as a screen. He’s 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 at the blue line, he and his teammates are prepared for almost anything.
With frightening lateral movement previously unseen, Makar might fake to his left, then to his right, leaving a defender stumbling on the ice while he skates backward along the blue line looking to pass or shoot off either foot. It is the kind of move almost more reminiscent of a basketball point guard with a deft dribbling handle than it is of hockey players of the past. Watching Makar is like watching the Stephen Curry of hockey, and it is leading 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. Standing in the way is the Lightning, looking for their third straight Stanley Cup championship, with some terrific 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 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, and Esposito thinks he will win at least three or four Norris Trophies.
In the regular season, he had 28 goals and 86 points and a plus-minus rating of positive-48, second only, among N.H.L. defenders, to the plus-52 of his teammate Devon Toews (whom Makar humbly calls the “driving force” of the Avalanche’s defense).
But Makar’s game is appreciable beyond statistics. He is evolving into one of the most entertaining players to watch, a visionary on ice with skating skills that rival the finest figure skaters and stick-handling abilities that make forwards envious. He entices defending wingers to move forward to engage him, and then he slides sideways, always with the puck loaded on his stick.
“He never looks at the puck when he handles it,” Sergachev said. “That’s the main thing about him when you watch him on the blue line. He’s always handling the puck and looking at the net or other players. That’s how he always finds good plays.”
Makar said he always loved to skate and do the drills necessary to perfect skating on the edges of his blades to generate speed and deception. But as gifted as he was, growing up in Alberta as a fan of the Calgary Flames, Makar took an unusual route to the N.H.L., choosing to attend the University of Massachusetts after he was drafted by the Avalanche with the fourth pick, overall, in 2017.
Greg Cronin, the coach of the Colorado Eagles, the Avalanche’s A.H.L. affiliate, was working as an assistant coach with the Islanders in 2017 and interviewed Makar before the draft. He wondered why Makar would not go into major junior hockey, like many emerging stars. Makar insisted he had made a commitment to play two years at UMass before he turned pro.
“Of all the interviews I did over those years, that one stood out,” Cronin said. “The honesty and conviction in his answer were remarkable, and he made it come true.”
Cronin later joined the Avalanche organization, and although he never coached Makar, he has been on the ice with him at training camp and said Makar might be the best skater he has ever seen.
“I call it joystick hockey,” Cronin said. “It’s like someone is controlling him from above, moving him up, back and then, bang, sideways. He will go half a step forward to get you to bite, and then he slingshots himself laterally. The defender is done.”
UMass has now evolved into a title contender, winning the Frozen Four in 2021, but it was not considered in the upper 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 collegiate player, played (and lost) in the national title game, signed with the Avalanche and then scored in his N.H.L. debut — against Calgary, no less.
“He helps us recruit every night he plays,” said Greg Carvel, the Minutemen’s coach. “That’s his legacy, that maybe the best player in the world played in this program. Kids want to play where Cale did.”
Carvel said that Makar arrived in Amherst with his unique skating ability already in place but noted that Makar was savvy enough to understand he needed more college time to develop strength and on-ice stamina before entering the N.H.L. 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, saying, ‘Get Cale out there more,’” Carvel recalled. “He just couldn’t do it. It was a sign that he wasn’t ready.”
Still, Joe Sakic, the Avalanche’s general manager and a former star player for the team, called Carvel after Makar’s first year at UMass and told the coach that the Avalanche intended to offer Makar a contract to join the team right away. But Makar stayed, knowing he needed to get stronger.
The scariest thing for the rest of the N.H.L. is that Makar continues to improve. Carvel said some of the flashiest moves he makes at the blue line now were not evident in college, and he said Makar’s skating and defensive game — and his uncanny snap-shooting ability — had been developed in the N.H.L., with more to come.
“I’ve worked in hockey forever; I’ve coached in the N.H.L,” 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 could not take their eyes off him as he gathered the puck behind his own net, threaded defenders as he gained speed up the ice, or spun 360 degrees at the blue line and attacked terrified goalies.
“Bobby was Bobby,” Esposito said. “Let’s let this kid have his own career. But he sure is fun to watch.”