The 2019-20 NHL season has been a record-breaking one for first-year players, with rookie defensemen leading the pack.
Three of the top five highest-scoring rookies this year are blueliners, and they are all among the favorites to be awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league's most outstanding rookie from this campaign.
Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks leads all first-year players in scoring with 53 points in 68 games (eight goals, 45 assists), while the Colorado Avalanche's Cale Makar is first among league freshmen averaging 0.88 points per game. Makar has played 11 fewer games than Hughes due to injuries, but he's also reached the 50-point threshold, registering 12 goals and 38 assists in 57 outings.
The New York Rangers' Adam Fox rounds out the trio of rear guards, and he is fifth among rookie scorers with 42 points in 70 contests (eight goals and 34 assists).
"I feel like there's a new generation of defensemen coming in, whether they're just smaller or mobile," Makar said of the success he, Hughes and Fox have had this season on a Zoom video conference call on Monday that featured the three young. "I think everybody's just going to take a different amount of time to develop, and I think for us we're all kind of similar builds in terms of our height and stuff. I think you just know when you're ready and regardless of the way that you go, I think the game is just changing. It's becoming faster and definitely a more agile sport."
All three defensemen went the college route before making their pro debuts and have put the rest of the league on notice with their dynamic play during the campaign. Hughes worked on his craft at the University of Michigan from 2017-19, while Fox played three years at Harvard University. Makar starred at the University of Massachusetts for two seasons after being drafted No. 4 overall by Colorado in 2017 and won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's top player in 2019.
"I think for me at the time, obviously everybody's different, but I think I was just a smaller guy," Makar said of his decision to go to UMass. "I think college just gives you an opportunity to kind of work on your body and your mental side of the ice more, and it kind of gives you a longer I guess trajectory to get to where you want to go. So I felt that for me that was kind of the right decision at the time and luckily I made it. Those were a couple of the best years of my life so far."
UMass helped prepare Makar to have a strong start to his NHL career and create one of the more memorable debuts in recent history by an NHL player.
Video: Makar, Hughes, Fox discuss NHL Pause
Last April, Makar helped UMass win 4-3 in overtime against the University of Denver in the NCAA Frozen Four on a Thursday, was named the Hobey Baker Award recipient on Friday, played in the national championship game on Saturday, signed his first pro contract with the Avs on Sunday and made his NHL debut on Monday in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs first-round series against the Calgary Flames--the team he grew up cheering for as a kid.
During his seventh shift of that postseason contest and with 3:58 remaining in the opening period, Makar scored his first pro goal after taking his first career shot, extending the Avalanche's lead to 3-0 in the outing and help the squad to a 2-1 series lead. The tally stood as the eventual game-winner
"It's still all a blur," Makar said on Monday. "I mean I was fortunate to do that, and the Avs had such a great team at the time that they just allowed me to step right in and kind of be the player that I wanted to be and that kind of just carried on to this year."
When asked about his "welcome to the NHL moment," Makar noted that it came about an hour earlier before his goal.
"I think the first moment that kind of comes to mind is I was getting ready for warmup for that first game, and obviously you're pretty nervous, you don't know what to expect," Makar recalled. "We're lined up in the hallway, and I think Tyson Barrie just comes up to me and just pats me on the shoulder and goes, 'It's an easy league, kid.' It's just kind of a funny one there, and I mean he's a great guy so that kind of just eased the nerves and was able to go out for the first game and have some fun."
In the Avs' last outing before the NHL put the campaign on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Makar recorded three assists in a 3-2 overtime victory against Fox's Rangers at Pepsi Center on March 11. That three-point night made him the second rookie D-man this season to reach the half-century mark in scoring, joining Hughes, and make this just the second NHL season ever to feature multiple first-year rear guards with at least 50 points (Barry Beck, Reed Larson and Stefan Persson in 1977-78).
The Avalanche was also rolling at the time of the pause, as the club went 9-2-1 in its previous 12 games and was two points behind the division-rival St. Louis Blues for first place in the Western Conference while also having a game in hand. The team's run for surpassing the Blues for the top spot in the conference is on hold for now as Makar and the rest of the league's players wait to get the all clear to return to play.
"I'm obviously just hoping to get back to it soon," Makar said. "Everybody just stay safe, obviously keep social distance and yeah hopefully this all can resume soon."
Like many of the Avs players, Makar returned to his hometown and is currently waiting and trying to stay in shape in Calgary, Alberta, while spending time his family and younger brother Taylor, who has committed to follow Cale's route of playing college hockey at UMass.
"Trying to stay active and play hockey around the house, but really nothing too crazy on my end," said Makar, who noted he recently ordered some rollerblades so he could do some skating outside to help in his training.
When the league does announce the winners of this year's trophies, either Makar, Fox or Hughes will likely be the one to take home the NHL's top-rookie honor.
This isn't the first time that the three offensive blueliners have squared off for hardware, as they all competed at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo, New York--Makar for Canada and Fox and Hughes with the United States. The two Americans got the better of Makar in the head-to-head matchup, a cold and snowy outdoor game between the rival nations during the preliminary round on Dec. 29, 2017, but Makar finished the tournament with a better medal--helping the Canadians win gold while the U.S. finished with the bronze.
Only time will tell which young player will take home the hardware as this year's top rookie. Will history repeat itself this year?
Here are other noteworthy items from Makar from today's conference call.
On his first time watching Quinn Hughes play:
"We were knocked out after my first year at UMass and we had a bunch of us go up to, I want to say like Worcester to watch the regionals. I think they played Northeastern, and that was kind of the first time I got to watch Quinn play live, and I was like his skating is pretty legit."
On playing in the outdoor game at the World Juniors:
"That was a unique experience. I mean starting the game was fun, and then you get to the second third period, and it was snowing heavy, they were shoveling every few minutes, you're freezing cold, probably got to like, I don't even know what Celsius, maybe around minus-20 Celsius. You were just grinding."
On defensive partner Ryan Graves:
"This year it's just been pretty steady with Ryan Graves. He's an unbelievable partner for me, just I'm always able to rely on him. He's one of the best plus-minuses in the league, so that just kind of shows how well he is defensively and how well he breaks out of the zone."
On his NHL role models growing up:
"Growing up in Calgary, I think one of my big role models was Jarome Iginla. Our family shared season tickets with some cousins and stuff and just to kind of see the way he carried himself off the ice, and obviously what he meant for the city of Calgary. Then obviously looking at D-men as well, I looked up to guys like Drew Doughty, [Nicklas] Lidstrom, it all kind of starts there. I did school projects on Bobby Orr and stuff like that just to learn about hockey."
On the hardest players to defend:
"I think I would be remiss if I didn't say [Nathan MacKinnon] on this one. He's a lot of fun to defend in practice even, but he's a lethal weapon, you don't know where he's going shoot or when he's going to shoot, I think he's just a very versatile player. Any of the top guys like [Connor] McDavid, [David] Pastrnak, [Sidney] Crosby. I think any of those guys would be pretty tough to defend."
On the toughest player to battle with in front of the net:
"The only one that comes to mind is I just remember trying to box out [Ryan] Getzlaf. I mean he's got a few inches on me so that was some work there, but that's really the only one that comes to mind."
On the hardest shot he's faced:
"Probably Shea Weber. I feel like I was lucky I didn't play PK that game in Montreal, I think he let some bombs go… Definitely an the eyes up situation when you see him at the point."