When the Colorado Avalanche won the Stanley Cup back in 2001, there was plenty of excitement around a 21-year wait ending as Ray Bourque finally got to lift the elusive trophy. It was the crowning achievement of a career filled with so many other memorable experiences.
Colorado had to endure another 21-year wait for its next Stanley Cup victory, winning the franchise’s third NHL crown in 2022 – the first for the Avalanche since that Bourque-fueled title run all those years ago. There was plenty of excitement around a defenseman this time, too, but not for the reflection on a stellar career coming to a close. Instead, Avs superstar Cale Makar showed that the sky might be the limit on a career that’s just getting started.
A defenseman hasn’t won the Hart Trophy since Chris Pronger took it home for the St. Louis Blues in 2000, and he’s the only defenseman to win it in the last 50 years. With Makar’s current trajectory, he could be the player to end that drought, and it could happen sooner rather than later.
Makar Used to Hauling in Hardware
Makar won just about everything a defenseman could last season. In his third season with the Avalanche, he won his first Norris Trophy, lifted his first Stanley Cup, and took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the postseason. It was his best campaign from a statistical standpoint, too, as he piled up 28 goals and 58 assists on the way to a career-high 86 points in 77 games. His previous career highs were 12 goals, 38 assists and 50 points – all in his rookie campaign of 2019-20 when he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.
Makar has always been adept at gathering trophies, and he’s used to breaking new ground as well. He won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as the nation’s top collegiate player in 2019, and three days after receiving that award, he scored a goal in his first NHL game – a 6-2 playoff win over the Calgary Flames. When he was named the most valuable player of the postseason at the end of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, he also became the first Hobey Baker Award winner to earn the Conn Smythe Trophy.
At only 23 years old, Makar has won every significant trophy that a defenseman can win in the NHL – except for the Hart Trophy. In today’s fast-paced game, it’s tough for a blueliner to outslug superstars like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews (who have combined to win three of the last six) from an offensive standpoint. He is also fighting an uphill battle against history, as there aren’t many defensemen that have claimed the award, especially recently.
Defensemen and the Hart Trophy
Winning the Hart Trophy is a tall order for any blueliner. A defenseman has taken home the Hart Trophy just 13 times since they started giving out the award in 1924, but only seven players have won it. Eddie Shore and Bobby Orr are the only two defensemen to win it more than once, with Shore claiming it four times and Orr winning it on three occasions. Of the 13 winners, only four have come after 1944, and three of those were given to Orr.
When Pronger won the Hart Trophy back in 2000, it almost didn’t go his way, as he edged Jaromir Jagr by just one vote – beating the Pittsburgh Penguins star by a 396-395 count. If that vote hadn’t gone Pronger’s way, the drought would be even more remarkable. The last blueliner to win the Hart before Pronger was Orr back in 1972 – the last of three consecutive years the Boston Bruins icon took home the trophy.
Orr’s offensive prowess was legendary, particularly in the 1969-70 season that saw him win his first Hart Trophy. Pronger was more of a defensive stalwart and scored just 62 points in his MVP campaign. However, since his victory, not one defenseman has even been a finalist for the award – including the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom. The Detroit Red Wings star was the last to pull off the feat of winning the Stanley Cup, Norris and Conn Smythe in the same season (2002) before Makar pulled it off this year. Lidstrom is another indication of how hard it is for defensemen to be selected as Most Valuable Player. He was widely considered the NHL’s best defenseman for the bulk of two decades, winning seven Norris Trophies in his dazzling 20-year career – but he never finished higher than fourth in Hart Trophy voting.
Makar’s Path to MVP
As long as the Avalanche remain relevant and in the hunt for the Stanley Cup, Makar’s MVP stock should continue to rise. He was one of the favorites for the Norris Trophy all season, and was a front-runner for the Conn Smythe almost immediately, as he racked up 10 points in Colorado’s first postseason series, a four-game sweep of the Nashville Predators.
Barring anything drastic, Makar’s 86 points this past season point to only more opportunity. The defense will always be there, but his magic number might be 100. If he can eclipse the 100-point plateau – which Nashville’s Roman Josi almost did this season by scoring 96 – he will receive serious consideration for the award. A defenseman hasn’t hit the century mark for points since Brian Leetch’s 102-point campaign for the New York Rangers in 1992-93.
Makar’s career is still very young but he was already compared to Orr during this past season’s playoff run. Of course, the league is a different animal now than it was during Orr’s playing days, but Makar should continue to pile up the hardware as long as his game continues to improve. He has proven to be one of the best defensive players in the league, but it’s his improving offensive game that should put him into serious consideration for the Hart Trophy in the near future.