To mark the halfway point in the season, NHL.com is running its third installment of the Trophy Tracker series this week. Today, we look at the race for the Calder Trophy, the annual award given to the player selected as the top rookie in the NHL in a Professional Hockey Writers Association poll.
Cale Makar has learned the art of being an NHL defenseman a lot sooner than most.
Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar discovered this during Makar's NHL debut in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, when he scored six points (one goal, five assists) in 10 postseason games.
The 21-year-old right-handed shot hasn't missed a beat his first full season, ranking second among NHL rookies with 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) and third with 12 power-play points (two goals, 10 assists) in 32 games; he missed eight with an upper-body injury.
Video: COL@CHI: Makar wrists home power-play goal
"He's a well-rounded player already, at a young age," Bednar said. "He's a very mature player, has high expectations for his own game and he holds himself to a high standard, so he's really self-aware of how he's going from shift to shift and what he wants to accomplish. He expects to be an impact player, is a real coachable kid and comes as advertised."
Makar remains the favorite to win the Calder Trophy at midseason according to a panel of 18 NHL.com writers. He received 16 first-place votes and 88 points in the poll.
Buffalo Sabres forward Victor Olofsson, who was third at the quarter mark, moved into second place with two first-place votes and 69 points, followed by Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes with 59 points, and Carolina Hurricanes forward Martin Necas with 11 points. Toronto Maple Leafs forward Ilya Mikheyev and New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox each had 10 points; Mikheyev will be out for at least three months after having surgery to repair an artery and tendons in his right wrist that were severed in a 5-4 overtime win at the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 27.
Olofsson, who has averaged 18:53 in ice time and has been playing on Buffalo's top line, leads rookies in goals (16), points (34) and power-play goals (nine) in 41 games.
Video: NSH@BUF: Olofsson nets own rebound from the crease
Bednar said Makar's most impressive skill is his ability to evade forecheckers.
"He's a strong-checking defenseman, and his knack to beat the first forechecker and get us in and out of our zone is so critical," Bednar said. "His explosiveness up the ice to be able to either join or lead the rush has been outstanding, and on the power play, he's becoming more of a threat himself and not just deferring to other players on the ice."
The No. 4 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Avalanche on April 14, three days after winning the Hobey Baker Award, presented annually to the top men's player in NCAA hockey.
"I think the maturity level that he has and just his whole approach to coming into the NHL .... he was patient in college, stayed an extra year and I think that was a mature decision to want to go back, help his team and be an impact player," Bednar said. "I think that kind of was the start of it. When I talked to him last year during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he didn't have high expectations and just wanted to go out and play and try to help."
Makar earned 14:19 in ice time in his first NHL game, scoring a goal in a playoff win against the Calgary Flames on April 15. He earned 20:06 in ice time in his second game, a sign that Bednar had complete confidence in Makar's ability to play at the next level.
"I think there will eventually be an efficiency to his game where we're going to see him on the ice for 27-28 minutes a night, and he's going to be able to handle that," Bednar said. "Now it's full throttle every shift, so it's a lot of work to try and play that way. I think he's going to be able to eat more ice time, then play just a touch more efficiently as he kind of gets used to the League and understands where his opportunities to help create offense are going to come from and where it needs to be a little bit more on the defensive side.
"He's just going to figure that out through experience and a little bit of help."
Voting totals (points awarded on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis): Cale Makar, Avalanche, 88 points (16 first-place votes); Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres, 69 (two first-place votes); Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks, 59; Martin Necas, Hurricanes, 11; Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs, 10; Adam Fox, New York Rangers, 10; John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins, 8; Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals, 8; Mackenzie Blackwood, New Jersey Devils, 3; Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens, 3; Ethan Bear, Edmonton Oilers, 1