It belonged to rosy-cheeked Cale Makar, the 21-year-old Colorado Avalanche who became only the third defenseman in 16 years to be named NHL Rookie of the Year. He edged out Vancouver Canucks blue liner Quinn Hughes, who is a year younger, even smaller than the five-foot-11 and equally dynamic Makar, by 1,538 to 1,337 in the Professional Hockey Writers poll. Association.
Of course, we’re in a golden age of young talent in the league with superstar forwards like Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel and Leon Draisaitl. But forwards have always done things forward in the NHL.
Defense is where the ever-faster game has changed most dramatically over the past five years.
If the Dallas Stars win the Stanley Cup, 21-year-old defenseman Miro Heiskanen is the most likely winner of Conn Smythe who doesn’t wear a goalie.
Makar and Hughes were point-per-game players in the playoffs until the Avalanche and Canucks were eliminated in the conference semifinals. The top Vegas Golden Knights player was 25-year-old mobile defenseman Shea Theodore.
All of these guys defend themselves by having the puck and skating and attacking and forcing the other team to defend them.
It’s a revolution.
“I am very honored to be recognized in this group,” Makar told reporters from his home in Calgary. “You add more guys like Adam Fox. I think it’s just once again in the league. Coaches and organizations give young boys a chance to show up at the back and the guys take advantage of that. I think for us it’s just being able to evolve with the game. Our main strengths are our skating and we can use it to our advantage. ”
Fox, a 22-year-old New York Rangers defenseman who is also five-foot-11, finished fourth in Calder’s vote and narrowly missed making them an all-defensive group of finalists.
Hughes, who became the first defenseman since Brian Leetch in 1989 to lead the NHL rookies in scoring when he collected 53 points in 68 games for the Canucks, admitted last week that he is watching what they’re doing Makar and Heiskanen and other young defenders.
“Of course I’m watching,” he told reporters in Vancouver. “I obviously watch these guys because they’re fun to watch, and I also want to see if I can learn something or get something out of their games. You always hear about it. People say, “Did you see this lens or see this lens? It just motivates me to see what I can do.
Hughes and Makar will push each other to be better for the next decade.
“It’s awesome; I love comparisons, ”Makar said. “I feel like we have very similar playing styles. I think it’s important, especially as a young man, that you get to watch other players play, be it league veterans like (Roman) Josi or (Victor) Hedman or younger guys like Hughes. and Heiskanen. I think you have to be able to take little things from everyone’s game and somehow add those aspects to your game in order to improve yourself.
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Buffalo has 20-year-old defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. Zach Werenski, 23, is in Columbus, Thomas Chabot, 23, in Ottawa, and there are Charlie McAvoy, 22, in Boston and Mikhail Sergachev, 22, in Tampa.
“Gone are the big, tough defensemen who chipped him off the glass,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said. “You have to have guys who can make that first pass and have the mobility to get the puck and play. We’ve seen over the past five years this new generation of defensemen are so skillful and playing on the ice.
“We used to talk about a low cycle, but now there’s a high cycle where guys like Quinn and Heiskanen and Makar can spin away (from the pressure) inside the blue line and make plays. It’s fun to watch.
Makar’s name on the Calder Trophy will be next to teammate Elias Pettersson, as the Canucks missed a chance to be the first team since the 1967 and 1968 Boston Bruins to have consecutive Rookies of the Year.
Including winger Brock Boeser, a finalist against New York Islander Mathew Barzal in the 2018 Calder race, Vancouver is the first franchise since the 1969-71 Rangers to have a top-three rookie by voting three years of after.
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“I didn’t really think about that,” Benning said. “All three of them had very good first years. But we didn’t draft them to win the Calder Trophy, we draft them to try and build a championship squad.
“Quinn is everything we thought he was going to be. I think the only thing I haven’t thought about is the impact it would have on the rest of our players. We always say in scouting how you want to recruit players who improve the players around them. Quinn has improved the players around him. He improved his defense partner, improved our attackers, improved our whole team.
He is not the only defender to do this.