The Race for the Calder

(Image from The Hockey News)

The race to be crowned the NHL’s rookie of the season is unlike any we’ve seen before. Only three times since the turn of the millennium has a defender won the Calder Memorial Trophy – Aaron Ekblad in 2014-15, Tyler Myers in 2009-2010, and Barrett Jackman in 2002-03. This season, two defenders have separated themselves from the rest and are ready to battle it out for the NHL’s most prestigious rookie award.

Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes are rewriting the book on what it means to be a successful defender as youth and speed reach new summits in the NHL. Unfortunately, only one can win and this article is going to delve into who deserves it more.

Recent History on Defenders in the Calder Race

(Data from Hockey Reference. Defenders are italicized)

A little bit of context as to how rare it is for two defenders to be leading the pack for the Calder makes Makar's and Hughes’ first seasons in the NHL all the more special.

There have been some incredible rookie talents on defence who put up great numbers only to be outshined by even more talented Calder-winning forwards. Rasmus Dahlin finished 3rd in Calder voting in 2019 playing over 17 minutes per night 5-on-5 and posting a 0.54 PPG and 51.25% Corsi for (CF) percentage. Even more impressive, his 44 points that season is the 2nd most all time by an 18-year-old.

Miro Heiskanen finished 4th that year with slightly less impressive numbers (0.4 PPG, 49.97% CF) but he played almost 19 minutes per night 5-on-5 on a playoff team. Both defenders finished behind eventual winner, Elias Pettersson, and Stanley Cup winner, Jordan Binnington (no arguments here).

Other examples exist with the likes of Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy, losing out to Auston Matthews and Matthew Barzal, respectively. As you can probably tell, it is almost impossible for rookie defenders to get the credit they deserve in light of all these gifted forwards entering the league.

Style of Play

(Photo from CBC)

There is no doubt that Cale Makar is going to be a generational defender. Offensive defensemen of his ilk come few and far between, and the fact that he is only 21 should be scaring the other 30 teams in the NHL. His explosive stride and top-end speed resemble Connor McDavid carrying the puck through the neutral zone, leaving defenders in the dust, and allowing his team to transition into a devastatingly quick offence.

His ability to relentlessly push the pace of the game has been a vital cog for one of the most potent offences in the league. Makar’s scoring ability far supersedes Hughes. His shot is lethal and he's mostly looking to hit the back of the net. There are few defenders who can walk the line and find an open lane to shoot like him.

Quinn Hughes doesn’t have the speed of Cale Makar but his offensive zone entry is just as impressive. With the aid of incredible acceleration, agility, and quick feet, Hughes uses shiftiness and high hockey IQ to increase and decrease the pace of the play in a matter of milliseconds. Rather than speed past defenders, he reads where the space is in the neutral zone, slowly approaches that space, draws defenders towards him, and quickly accelerates around them to shift his way into the offensive zone.

(Photo from MSN)

His shot is weaker than Makar’s, but when he shoots, he is looking to generate rebounds and tips. Makar is elite at walking the line but Hughes is among the most dangerous in the NHL at using quick turns to create space along the boards. In doing so, he creates more time to make a high percentage offensive play.

They are defenders after all so it would be important to discuss their style of defensive play. While there are many elements to the art of defending, the most important is the ability to defend the rush. More and more are we seeing teams like Toronto, Colorado, and Edmonton use their fast-paced rush offence to capitalize on mistakes and punish teams before they have time to transition to defence.

Quinn Hughes is arguably more effective at this. He plays very deep and creates a large gap between himself and attackers, then uses his agility and quick feet to block their entry into the neutral zone along his own blue line. On the other hand, Makar stays tight with attackers all the way into the defensive zone, a more dangerous maneuver as the opposition have more time to bring players into attack and pin the Avalanche in the defensive zone.

Relative Importance to Their Team

As of February 25th, 2020, Makar and Hughes are posting a 0.85 and 0.82 PPG, respectively. According to Hockey Reference’s era adjusted points, Makar is 1st all-time and Hughes is 4th, another testament to their brilliance (and the rarity of it). While it’s easy to compare points, it’s too easy, so let’s look at how productive each defender makes their own forwards when they’re on the ice.

Primary point production is a simple and more effective way of assessing contribution to offence versus point totals. Although the two have similar PPGs, 31 of 45 points (69%) for Makar have been primary points compared to only 30 of 50 points (60%) for Hughes, according to IcyData. Based on their personal offensive output, it would appear that Makar is on top.

An even better way to assess contribution to offence is to compare metrics when they are with or without a teammate. When Quinn Hughes is on the ice versus off the ice, the expected goals for percentage (xGF%) for Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson, and JT Miller go from 50% to 60%.

Meanwhile, when Cale Makar is on the ice versus off the ice, the xGF% for Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon hovers around 55%, according to Hockey Reference.

Coming into the 2019-20 season, there is no doubt Cale Makar had the advantage coming into a highly gifted offensive team in contention to win the Stanley Cup. Besides Elias Pettersson, there was uncertainty around who Quinn Hughes would be able to excel with, given that Brock Boeser has yet to play a full season due to injuries.

It is obvious that Colorado’s top line beats Vancouver’s, but it’s likely also why Makar isn’t influencing his teammates like Hughes. Rantanen, MacKinnon, and Landeskog are so good together that Makar’s brilliance is somewhat undermined. On the other hand, it appears that Vancouver’s top line excels most when Hughes is on the ice. For a team that wasn’t projected to be in the playoffs, Quinn Hughes' relative importance to their team’s offensive production is superior to Makar.

Who Wins?

(Photo from NHL)

The true winner here is the fans. We should be grateful for being blessed with two potential generational defenders in the Calder Memorial Trophy race.

Overall, I would argue that Cale Makar is the superior player and will have a more prolific career than Quinn Hughes. If their roles were reversed, there is no doubt that Cale Makar could influence the Canucks players as much as Hughes, if not more, but it’s an alternate reality we’ll never know.

I personally think Quinn Hughes deserves to come out on top as the NHL’s best rookie in 2019-20. I believe the Canucks' success is much more predicated on Quinn Hughes than the Avalanche’s success is predicated on Makar. It would be ludicrous to suggest that Colorado would be anywhere near as good without Makar, but in what is now called the “Packedcific” division, who knows which side of the log jam the Canucks would lie come playoff time without Hughes.

Many metrics can be used to compare the two but when June rolls around and the winner is announced, the only appropriate response will be to appreciate what they’ve accomplished now and what they will continue to accomplish. Makar and Hughes will pave the way for a new era of offensive defensemen and the future on the blue line is certainly looking bright.