Cale Makar’s Norris case, in numbers: Why the Avalanche defenseman is in front of a crowded field
In a duel between arguably the two Norris Trophy favourites, Cale Makar and Roman Josi showed Thursday night exactly why they are in contention for the award. Two minutes into the Avalanche-Predators’ start, Colorado forward Nazem Kadri won a clean tie, sending the puck to a waiting Makar. The defender moved to his right and flicked a wrist at the net, beating goaltender David Rittich and making him the third defender since the turn of the century to reach 28 goals in a season.
Josi made sure not to be upstaged. Near the end of the second, he crossed the neutral zone on a power play and charged towards the net, absorbing Devon Toews’ contact and still managing to get the puck over the goal line. The goal marked his 95th point of the year — a Predators single-season record and the most scored by a defenseman since 1992-93.
In a typical year, either Makar or Josi would be a shoo-in for the Norris, given each year to the defender “who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position”. But they have to go head-to-head, along with Tampa’s Victor Hedman and Boston’s Charlie McAvoy, both of whom also have award-winning seasons.
Only one can win the Norris.
“It’s going to be tough,” Hedman said.
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar and star center Nathan MacKinnon aren’t as conflicted.
“(Makar) is, for me, the guy,” Bednar said.
“I’ve never seen a D dominate like Cale,” MacKinnon added. “Maybe it’s Cale’s turn. It’s hard to deny him. »
They may be biased sources, but judging by the numbers, they’re right. The game score added value shows that Makar is clearly the most worthy candidate, with Josi not even in the top three. Makar leads with 5.4, followed by McAvoy (5.0), Hedman (4.5) and Josi (4.4).
Those four separated from the pack, with Toews (3.8) and Jaccob Slavin (3.7) in fifth and sixth.
With updated numbers from Thursday’s matches, here’s how the top four rank, with a focus on what Makar did to separate.
Bednar says Makar is “as dangerous as any forward in the league”, and although Josi leads him in points by a defender (95-86), the race is much tighter when secondary assists are taken out of the game. ‘equation. Josi’s lead is only 58 to 57 in primary points.
Of Makar’s 86 points, 66% are either goals or assists, compared to 64% for Hedman, 61% for Josi and 46% for McAvoy. This reflects the Colorado defenseman’s direct influence on the team’s offensive production.
Although McAvoy has the fewest points of the four favorites, interestingly he has the highest expected goals per 60 minutes compared to his teammates, which shows his influence on Boston’s scoring chances. That didn’t translate to a mind-blowing five out of five, however. He only has 25 points and 10 main points at even strength.
Josi’s offensive importance to the Predators is undeniable. He’s great at crossing the neutral zone and has a point on 63.7% of the Predators’ goals when he’s on the ice. Hedman is at 52.8%, followed by Makar (52%) and McAvoy (46%). When Hedman was recently asked who, besides himself, deserves the Norris, he replied Josi after acknowledging what a tough choice it was.
So what does all this mean? Josi had the most prolific season in terms of points and is the Predators’ most valuable player. Hedman ticks boxes in every category, and McAvoy’s underlying numbers are among the best in the league. Makar, meanwhile, leads all defensemen in goals while averaging more than a point per game. Earlier this season, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy mentioned him by name when he explained that he was fine with offensive-minded defensemen vying for the Norris. Senior hockey writer Eric Duhatschek wrote on Friday for Athleticism that Makar and Josi deserve recognition and wondered in his column whether the league should introduce a top offensive defenseman award to create “the option to split the spoils”.
The price in its current version, however, is not just about the offense. And Makar has made his biggest improvements this season defensively.
Makar’s defensive play does not include a high number of hits. He bases his game more on positioning, and his skating ability allows him to recover from mistakes and limit his chances of scoring.
Of the four GSVA leaders, Makar is the only one with more takeaways (49) than gifts (40). Hedman is fairly close to the tie (56 freebies vs. 52 takeouts), but McAvoy (69 freebies, 29 takeouts) and Josi (70 freebies, 48 takeouts) are further behind.
Makar also jumps when it comes to suppressing shots. His expected minus-0.14 goals against his teammates are better than McAvoy (minus-0.13), Hedman (minus-0.04) and Josi (plus-0.06).
Attacking defenders sometimes have a reputation for bloody chances, but that’s not the case with Makar. He’s about average in the carry percentage he allows against, but those entries don’t often turn into opportunities to score against. It’s something the Avalanche usually limits when he’s on the ice. The blue areas on HockeyViz’s heatmap for Makar, below, show the areas where the Avalanche allow the fewest shots when on the ice, and the map shows a lack of shots from the most dangerous areas. : in front of the net and near the face-off circles.
“He’s got to be relied on to do more than create an offense,” Bednar said. “He understands that and he works hard at it, and good players, talented players, smart players are going to find a way to be good at whatever you throw at them.”
Although the heatmap reflects what Makar does on the ice, it’s a team effort. Toews, his main blueline partner, is the team’s best pure defenseman and a big contributor to limiting chances. But Makar’s isolated impact shows his defensive growth isn’t just the product of his teammates. According to HockeyViz, Makar’s isolated influence at five-on-five decreased the Avalanche’s expected goal rate to about 11% more than the average skater would have in his minutes when factoring in zonal starts, competition and of training.
Suppressing shots is only part of the defense. Puck possession can be just as important, and the best all-around defenseman should be able to turn defense into offense. With Makar’s skating and puck-handling abilities, that’s something he’s more than capable of. Of Norris’ four favorites, only McAvoy ranks higher in puck recoveries that lead to five-on-five breakouts, but Makar’s advantage is that he doesn’t fail in many of his recovery attempts. possession or leaving the area.
When it comes to getting the puck out of the defensive end, Josi ranks high in his reporting and Hedman in his passing. Makar’s strength is that he can come out with a pass or carry at above average pace. The same goes for McAvoy, whose attempts edge slightly closer to overtaking. Another advantage McAvoy and Makar hold is how efficient they are in their attempts, with very few failures.
With less than a star group of forwards, Josi takes the puck into the offensive zone at a higher rate than other defensemen in the league, but only about 57% of those entries are with possession. Hedman is above average in his onset rate and one of the best in the league at doing so with control about 64% of the time. Makar is right behind Hedman and McAvoy is right behind him.
When asked what makes a Norris candidate, league players and coaches emphasized the need to play in a variety of situations.
“I think you have to be able to be a solid defender, a guy you can rely on, be able to play against another team’s best players every night, take on those defensive responsibilities (by) playing five against six, six-out of five, shorthanded,” Bednar said. “Cale does all of that.
In addition to five-on-five best pairing minutes, Hedman, Makar, McAvoy and Josi are all quarterbacks of their teams’ top power-play units, all in their own effective ways. When it comes to the penalty kill, McAvoy and Hedman remain mainstays of their shorthanded teams. It was a goal against Makar last year: he played less than 17% of the Avalanche’s shorthanded time. Now it is closer to 30%.
Josi, meanwhile, plays just 13% of the time shorthanded for the Predators. To be fair to the Nashville captain, he’s probably more useful in other situations, and he averages 25:33 of ice time per game, just behind Makar’s 25:40. Hedman (25:08) and McAvoy (24:39) aren’t far behind either.
McAvoy sees his minutes increase both when his team needs to score and when the Bruins need to defend a one-goal lead. The same goes for Hedman. Josi has leaned on the most when the Predators are down in a game, and rightfully so with the amount of offense flowing through him. He will also see time when the score is tied, but does not see his usage increase when defending close matches like others. Makar is in a similar boat, but with fewer extremes either way.
The usage assessment also extends to who the players are up against throughout the game. Josi is still having tough minutes, but his teammates Mattias Ekholm and Alexandre Carrier usually face the best forwards. The same goes for Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak absorbing tougher minutes. In Colorado, Toews and Makar are seeing top-notch competition, although Josh Manson has helped in that regard since the trade deadline. McAvoy is squarely supported to face the best forwards.
Here’s how the top four perform in a variety of categories:
(Note: To qualify as having faced the best competition in the table above, the player must be in the top two defenders on their team by average GSVA face.)
Makar, 23, came close to winning his first Norris of 2021, finishing second to Adam Fox in the voting. Although he missed all of the Avalanche’s preseason games while recovering from injury, he once again put himself in the running for the award.
“It’s not that he cares at all,” MacKinnon recently said, “but he definitely earned it.”
(Photo: Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)