No matter what you think of Darryl Sutter’s coaching philosophies, the stone-faced bench boss knows what he’s talking about when it comes to hockey. Just as many predicted, the Colorado Avalanche swept the Juuse Saros-less Nashville Predators in a ruthlessly efficient first-round performance. While the Avalanche’s top forwards all delivered, superstar defenseman Cale Makar orchestrated the four-game destruction with his surgeon-like precision from the blueline. His zone transition wizardry and offensive production were on full display, making him the early, early Conn Smythe Trophy favourite as the playoff MVP. Let’s dig into how his elevated play has the Avalanche eyeing their first berth in the Western Conference Finals since the 2002 Playoffs.
Makar’s Offensive Production Hitting New Heights
With 10 points (three goals and seven assists) in the Avalanche’s four games against the Predators, Makar currently ranks fourth in playoff scoring, but sits first in per-game production (P/GP). Comparatively, Colorado’s primary offensive weapons in Nathan MacKinnon (six points), Gabriel Landeskog (six), and Mikko Rantanen (five) all produced at their usual level, but still lag behind the third-year defenseman.
Hall-of-Fame defender Paul Coffey holds the NHL’s record for points by a defenseman in a single postseason (37 in 18 games in 1985), a mark that could be challenged by Makar if the Avalanche fulfill their Stanley Cup expectations. His per-game output (2.50 P/GP) outstrips that of Coffey’s (2.06), but that’s a near-impossible pace to maintain for three more rounds against increasingly difficult opposition. A more realistic outcome is eclipsing Denis Potvin’s 25 points in the 1981 Playoffs (fifth all-time), but surpassing Coffey is achievable if the Avalanche play six or seven-game series from here on out.
Outside of his scoring totals, Makar steered the Avalanche’s dominant display at 5v5 whenever he took to the ice. They controlled 62.1% of all shots (SF%), owned a 62.8% share of expected goals (xGF%), and accounted for 75% of goals scored, all while he averaged the ninth-highest ice time (25:26 minutes) of the first round thus far. Even as the forwards had a relatively tame series (by their lofty standards), Makar shouldered the brunt of the offensive generation workload.
According to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, Makar led the Avalanche in 5v5 shot attempts (31), and the rate at which his carries (entering the zone with possession of the puck) led to scoring chances (66.7%). It’s easier to create individual opportunities when your opponents are preoccupied with the team’s collection of scoring threats, but the Predators had no answer for the defenseman’s incisiveness at even strength. All he’s done is maintain his Norris Trophy-calibre play through the first round of the playoffs.
Sznajder’s Microstat Game Score metric, which assigns a value to each shot, pass, and zone entry and exit a player completes and combines them to come up with a single all-in-one value, clearly demonstrates Makar’s overall impact. In terms of cumulative Game Score, he ranks fourth in this year’s playoffs only behind Connor McDavid, Kirill Kaprizov, and Jake Guentzel, all of whom have played six games to Makar’s four. Switch over to a per-game basis, and he surges ahead of the field. When a player’s boxscore statistics, underlying numbers, and microstat data is all telling you he’s been the most valuable player in these playoffs, it’s best to not ignore the evidence.
Conn Smythe Trophy History Helps Makar’s MVP Case
The Conn Smythe Trophy, first awarded in 1965, is presented annually to the most valuable player (MVP) during the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, as decided by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association (PHWA). As of the 2020-21 playoffs, the trophy has been awarded 56 times to 47 different players, 10 of which have been defensemen. Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning (2020) is the most recent blueliner to win the award, meaning that there is precedent for the accolade to be given to a defender in the modern era.
One overriding criterion is that a player is much more likely to be recognized with the award if they played for the eventual Stanley Cup-winning team. Only five players have ever won the Conn Smythe as a member of the losing team: Roger Crozier (1966, Detroit Red Wings), Glenn Hall (1968, St. Louis Blues), Reggie Leach (1976, Philadelphia Flyers), Ron Hextall (1987, Flyers), and Jean-Sebastien Giguere (2003, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim).
Given the relative weakness of the Western Conference, the Avalanche’s path to the Cup Final is clearer than in years past, which should help satisfy that aspect of his MVP argument. Still, Miro Heiskanen posted 26 points in 27 games in the 2020 Playoffs as the Dallas Stars reached the Cup Final, yet lost out to Hedman and his 22 points in 25 games.
Another significant standard on the grading rubric is point production. The Conn Smythe winner has either led the playoffs in scoring or tied for the lead 19 times in the trophy’s history, with three others (Jean Beliveau, 1965; Jonathon Toews, 2010; and Sidney Crosby, 2017) finishing a single point adrift of the leader in their respective postseasons.
Luckily for Makar, leading the playoffs in scoring is not a bar he must clear in order to claim the Conn Smythe as a defenseman. The 1989 (Al MacInnis) and 1994 (Brian Leetch) Playoffs were the only two occasions which featured defensemen who led the playoffs in scoring and won the Conn Smythe. In fact, Conn Smythe-winning defenders have had a P/GP pace around 0.5 on several occasions, nowhere near the top of the leaderboard. Consequently, Makar can present a stronger case if he maintains his stellar positional impacts at 5v5 while pacing the Avalanche in scoring.
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Using a minimum of eight games played in a single postseason as a proxy for making it past the first round, the highest P/GP rate of the salary cap era is Wade Redden’s 1.11 in 2006. If Makar and the Avalanche go all the way to the Stanley Cup Final and play six-game series in each remaining round, the 23-year-old defender could score an additional 20 points using Redden’s benchmark pace, giving him 30 over the entire playoff campaign. Only eight players have topped 30 points in a single playoffs since 2005-06, but Evgeni Malkin (36 points in 2009) is the only one of the group to win the Conn Smythe. It’s not a very high hit-rate, but Makar’s position should boost his case in the event he hits the mark.
Makar Key to Avalanche Second-Round Success Against Blues
After disposing of the Predators, the Avalanche move on to face the St. Louis Blues in the second round. The Blues are a dangerous foe, scoring 3.77 goals per game (third in the NHL) during the regular season. Despite boasting a league-leading nine 20-goal scorers, the Blues are an underwhelming 5v5 outfit. In the regular season, they only controlled 47.4% of SF (25th) and 48.3% of xGF (19th), both bottom-half rates for shares of possession and chance quality.
The Blues are slightly below average at preventing successful carries (56.1%), but grade out higher when it comes to allowing scoring chances off of those carries (10th). As a result, Makar should have few issues gaining the zone with possession, but might be in tough to create his own scoring chances in transition. Apart from the Florida Panthers, no other team completed more frequent controlled zone entries than the Avalanche this season.
The blueline star is an integral component of Colorado’s gameplan, so stopping him is the key to success for the Blues. If they fail to impede his regular forays through the neutral zone, this series might be over before it even starts.
Data courtesy of All Three Zones, Evolving-Hockey, and the NHL.