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Is Avalanche Defenseman Cale Makar the Stephen Curry of Hockey?

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DENVER — The name floats within the ether, now, alongside Cale Makar’s, put there by Wayne Gretzky. On TNT’s hockey program, Gretzky, arguably the most effective to ever play the sport, compared Makar to Bobby Orr, the transcendent defenseman some insist was even higher than Gretzky.

Patrick Roy said Makar could turn into the most effective defenseman in history, suggesting he might surpass Orr. Others have chimed in, heaping praise on the sensible 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 within the Stanley Cup Finals.

Phil Esposito, the Hall of Fame center, played alongside Orr for nine seasons in Boston and has a tough time believing that anyone might be nearly as good as Orr, the good No. 4, who single-handedly turned defense right into a previously unseen weapon of offense, rushing up the ice, past defenders as in the event that they were helpless statues.

“Makar is admittedly, really good,” Esposito, now a radio announcer for Lightning games, said. “But Bobby was the best. I’ll say this: The child is close. He dictates play like Bobby did.”

None of that is to say that Makar is a greater player yet, relative to his era, than Orr was, or that he can have a greater profession than Orr, who won eight Norris trophies because 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 weren’t even contemplated by Orr and his colleagues back within the Nineteen Seventies, or for a few years after.

Orr revolutionized his position and made spin-o-rama moves on the blue line that left jaws hanging. But he never danced and carved crescent-shaped ice showers on the blue line. And he didn’t walk the road backward with the puck threateningly on his stick in quite the best way Makar does. Nobody made those sorts of maneuvers when Orr played, partially because they lacked modern skates and training methods. As Esposito noted, players in Orr’s era spent their summers working, whereas players today skate 12 months round.

Orr didn’t open his hips, put his heels together and befuddle defenders the best way some skaters, most notably Sidney Crosby, can today. But few do it with as much ease and delight 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’re thinking that 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’s a student of the sport and particularly his own position. When he sees that Makar has the puck on the blue line, he and his teammates are prepared for nearly 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 seeking to pass or shoot off either foot. It’s the form of move almost more harking back to a basketball point guard with a deft dribbling handle than it’s of hockey players of the past. Watching Makar is like watching the Stephen Curry of hockey, and it’s resulting in success.

Within the playoffs this season, Makar has 5 goals and 17 assists, and his 22 points lead the Avalanche in what could end within the team’s first championship since 2001. Standing in the best way is the Lightning, searching for their third straight Stanley Cup championship, with some terrific defensemen of their very own.

“They try to construct a dynasty,” Makar said on Tuesday. “We try to construct a legacy.”

Makar’s legacy is already well under construction. He’s a finalist for the Norris Trophy, together with Victor Hedman of the Lightning and Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators, whom the Avalanche swept in 4 games in the primary round. (Makar had 3 goals and seven assists in that series.) Makar is barely 23, and Esposito thinks he’ll win at the very least three or 4 Norris Trophies.

Within the regular season, he had 28 goals and 86 points and a plus-minus rating of positive-48, second only, amongst 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’s evolving into one of the crucial entertaining players to observe, a visionary on ice with skating skills that rival the best figure skaters and stick-handling abilities that make forwards envious. He entices defending wingers to maneuver forward to have interaction him, after which he slides sideways, all the time with the puck loaded on his stick.

“He never looks on the puck when he handles it,” Sergachev said. “That’s the foremost thing about him once you watch him on the blue line. He’s all the time handling the puck and looking out at the web or other players. That’s how he all the time finds good plays.”

Makar said he all the time loved to skate and do the drills essential to perfect skating on the sides 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 path to the N.H.L., selecting 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 wouldn’t 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 of 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 is likely to be the most effective 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 after which, bang, sideways. He’ll go half a step forward to get you to bite, after which he slingshots himself laterally. The defender is completed.”

UMass has now evolved right into a title contender, winning the Frozen 4 in 2021, nevertheless it was not considered within the upper tier of faculty 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 most effective collegiate player, played (and lost) within the national title game, signed with the Avalanche after which 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 perhaps the most effective player on the planet played on this program. Kids need to play where Cale did.”

Carvel said that Makar arrived in Amherst along with his unique skating ability already in place but noted that Makar was savvy enough to know 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 right down to the tip of the bench, saying, ‘Get Cale on the market more,’” Carvel recalled. “He just couldn’t do it. It was an indication 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 12 months at UMass and told the coach that the Avalanche intended to supply Makar a contract to hitch the team immediately. But Makar stayed, knowing he needed to get stronger.

The scariest thing for the remainder of the N.H.L. is that Makar continues to enhance. Carvel said a few of the flashiest moves he makes on the blue line now weren’t evident in college, and he said Makar’s skating and defensive game — and his uncanny snap-shooting ability — had been developed within the N.H.L., with more to come back.

“I’ve worked in hockey perpetually; I’ve coached within the N.H.L,” Carvel said. “There are only a few people I might pay money to observe play hockey. Perhaps five people. He’s, obviously, certainly one of them. He’s pure entertainment.”

Orr was like that, too. Fans couldn’t 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 on the blue line and attacked terrified goalies.

Bobby was Bobby,” Esposito said. “Let’s let this kid have his own profession. But he sure is fun to observe.”

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