There’s an old hockey axiom that any young defenseman needs 200 games in the NHL to come into his own. Unlike most of the sport’s theories, which are usually grizzled old horseshit that everyone has just gone along with out of terror for ever rocking the boat in any way, it holds some water. It’s a hard job, and it takes time to adjust to the NHL’s speed coming at you instead of just matching it as forwards do. Maintaining the right gaps, moving the puck or yourself under the pressure of men with jobs instead of kids with no direction, and finding passing and shooting windows that close in a heartbeat just take some time to get to terms with.
Unless you’re Cale Makar.
Makar last night became the first D-man in NHL history — that’s some 105 years — to score 200 points in fewer than his first 200 games (195 for those keeping count). Bobby Orr didn’t do it. Paul Coffey didn’t do it when every goalie was a hungover gnome. Ray Bourque didn’t do it. Makar has hit the ground running, or ice skating as it were, faster and better than just about anyone in the game’s history.
Sure, coaching at the youth level and higher is assuredly better than what it was 20 or 30 years ago. Makar was probably introduced to various training methods, weights, nutrition, and the like, far quicker than any of the names he will walk with one day in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Bourque’s, Orr’s, and Coffey’s training methods probably involved bringing the keg back into the coach’s house. On the flip side, the NHL game has never been faster. It should be even harder for a teenager to walk into the league and be effective, much less thrive, much less dominate.
And yet the game speeds up with Makar on the ice. Every team is looking for their own Makar now, a D-man who is a one-man rush and trap-buster. One who links the offense back to the defensive zone in an instant. He quite simply has changed the game.
Or one who can do this whenever he pleases.
Rare is the player you know is among the greats from the moment they start. You may know, or strongly suspect, that a rookie or second-year player could grow into a legend, if things go right. You wait for the dips, the learning curves, no matter how much you expect that player to overcome those and then burst out. “When he puts it all together.”
But there are some who are fully assembled as soon as they arrive, and Makar is one of the very few. He showed up in the middle of the 2019 playoffs and immediately looked like the best player on the ice. Makar began weaving in and out of traffic in all three zones, opening up lanes in the offensive zone with his unseen agility, and creating chaos around the net with a wrister that always seems to get through to the crease no matter the tightness of the window to shoot through. There was little question that he was something truly different.
Makar’s metrics are down a bit this season, though still glittering, as the Avs have had to use him more in the defensive zone more than they have before. The percentage of his shifts that start in the offensive zone so far this season is down seven percent, and his defensive zone shifts are up the same. Hasn’t really stopped him from flipping the ice.
Makar wasn’t the only alien on display yesterday accomplishing something on the fields where people play yesterday. England’s Jude Bellingham became the second teenager ever to score for England in a World Cup, and when he wasn’t doing that he was simply dominating the game from all parts. Midfield is supposed to be just as hard to learn as defense is in hockey, and it has more facets. And yet Bellingham has already mastered them all at just 19. He can shield a defense, he can pass from deep to release forwards, he can be the late man in the box to score, whatever. And he did it all against Iran.
A goal for you.
Or maybe you need him releasing a perfect through ball on the stretch to set up England’s last goal.
Bellingham’s price tag seemingly goes up every week, and turning over opponents in the World Cup will only expedite that process. He’s been so good from jump street that his first club, Birmingham City, retired his number at the age of 17, when he left for Dortmund.
It’s rare that historic greatness slaps you about the face the first time you see it, but yesterday was one of those days where you can’t miss it.
Let’s cap things off with Tomas Tatar’s goal to seal the New Jersey Devils’ 13th win in a row:
It’s not often in hockey a player gets to try the Ichiro, chipping the puck over the goalie with the puck in midair. Tatar even shortened up like there were two strikes. Except he did it on skates.