It’s been almost three decades since the NHL has seen a rookie defenseman step into the league and dominate from the outset of their career. The last rookie D-man to register 60 points in their first season was the legendary Nick Lidstrom in 1991-92.
This year, there were two young D-men who were set to surpass 60 points and looked dominant in the process. They also vaulted themselves into the conversation for being among the best defencemen, both before reaching their 22nd birthdays.
Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar smashed all expectations this season, making this year’s race for the Calder Trophy the tightest in recent memory (even tighter than Crosby vs. Ovechkin back in ‘06).
There are similarities abound between these two studs, which is one of the reasons why this race is so tough to predict.
Both are small, (under 6 foot and 190 pounds respectively) and both are elite offensive defensemen in every aspect. Hughes and Makar are able to quarterback a power play better than almost anyone in the league, while dictating the play from the back end through impeccable skating and quick first passes.
Also, both players come from families with high athletic pedigrees, and both played NCAA hockey — Quinn for Michigan and Makar for UMass Amherst.
At a surface-level look, it seems nearly impossible to pick a Calder winner between these two can’t-miss talents. So, Canucks bias aside, let’s get into the numbers and impact made by each and try to decide.
First, Quinn Hughes appeared in 68 games this year for the Canucks, only missing one back in November. He scored 8 goals to go along with 45 assists for a total of 53 points, first among all NHL rookies. Hughes deservingly earned first pairing minutes, averaging the second-most ice time per game among rookies with 21:53.
Additionally, Hughes finished with 25 total power play points (3 goals and 22 assists), took 126 shots on goal, and blocked 46 shots. Another gold-star on Hughes’ Calder resume is the fact that his power play points were good enough for first among all rookies this year along with tied for first on the Canucks.
Two rare rough areas reflected in Hughes’ stat line include a -25 ratio between takeaways and giveaways (35 TK, 60 GV) and a final plus-minus of -10. However, it’s important to take plus-minuses with a grain of salt, as the usefulness of the statistic has been called into question over the last decade with the rise of more advanced metrics.
Moving onto Makar’s stats, the Calgarian finished with 57 games played for 12 goals and 38 assists, adding up to 50 total points. It’s important to notice that Makar was out in both December and early March with upper body injuries. Although Hughes leads in overall points, Makar takes the cake in points-per-game among rookies with 0.87.
Furthermore, Makar finished with an average of 21:01 of ice time per game, a total that was 3rd among Avs defensemen. He put up a total of 19 power play points (4 goals and 15 assists), but had more even-strength points in less games than Hughes (31 for Makar, 28 for Hughes).
He also finished as a +12, took 121 shots, blocked 47 shots, and provided more of a physical edge than Hughes with 45 hits (compared to Quinn’s 7). Makar was able to stay out of the penalty box, taking the least minor penalties of any regular Avs defender with only six.
Edge: Draw. They have their positives in different areas, and you have to remember that Makar was on a much better team overall than Hughes was this year, which positively skewed some of his stats.
Quinn Hughes totaled 899 Corsi-for and 824 Corsi-against for a total Corsi percentage of 52.2%. On the other hand, Cale Makar totaled 771 Corsi-for and 702 Corsi-against for a standout Corsi percentage of 52.7%.
In terms of Goals-For, the Canucks outscored their opponents 60-55 while Hughes was on the ice at 5-on-5. While Makar was on the ice for the Avalanche, they outscored their opponents a hefty 56-36 at 5-on-5.
The last advanced stat I’ll be looking at is zone starts at 5-on-5. With Hughes on the ice, the Canucks took faceoffs in the offensive zone 58.2% of the time. With Makar on the ice, Colorado took faceoffs in the offensive zone a whopping 61.2% of the time.
Edge: Makar. This is a clear-cut advantage Makar has over Hughes, as his 5-on-5 advanced numbers all shake out to be just a little bit better than Quinn’s. This isn’t overly surprising, as Makar is the player known more for his 5-on-5 impact, and advanced stats are most useful for 5-on-5 play.
Impact on their Teams
When looking at the impact that Hughes and Makar made on their respective squads, it’s best to look at how the Canucks and Avs progressed this season.
For starters, the Canucks were on a 93-point pace this season after finishing with 81 last year without the services of Hughes, transitioning from a lottery team to a bubble team. The Avalanche were on a 108-point pace this season after finishing with 90 last year without Makar, transitioning straight to contender status after a few years on the bubble.
Hughes and Makar were a large part of the respective improvements but were not at all directly responsible. The Canucks also saw the emergence of J.T. Miller into a point-per-game player up front and the further progression of Elias Pettersson, on top of the solid back-end addition of Tyler Myers.
The Avs added depth forwards Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, and Joonas Donskoi, and of course saw the continued evolution of Nathan MacKinnon into one of the league’s premier players.
Both teams also received improved goaltending from recent seasons, the Canucks obviously from Jacob Markstrom and the Avs from the duo of Phillipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz.
Where Hughes really made his mark on the Canucks was on the man advantage. Vancouver shot up the overall powerplay ranks, from 22nd and 17.1% last season to 4th overall and 24.2% this season.
Quinn is a pure power play quarterback, possibly the best the Canucks have ever had in their history. The 20 year-old ranked third among all NHL defensemen in power play points, behind only John Carlson and Torey Krug. It just seems like any of his deceptive bombs from the point have a chance of going in, getting tipped in, or causing a rebound and a golden opportunity.
On the flipside, Makar’s skating ability and his knack for creating scoring chances out of seemingly nothing are even better than Hughes’. Makar is able to shimmy around opposing defensemen at the blueline and find teammates down low at 5-on-5 at an impressive rate.
It also greatly helps the Avalanche to have a defenseman that can break the puck out nearly without fail to the line of MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen.
Edge: Hughes (by a hair). Vancouver’s guy gets the nod here, as the fact that the Canucks now have a premier defenseman has been instrumental in them becoming a playoff-caliber team.
Colorado was expected to rise up the standings regardless of Makar’s impact due to their offseason moves, whereas fans didn’t really know what to expect out of Vancouver or Hughes himself for that matter. Adding Quinn to the young nucleus already in place made the Canucks one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the league instantly.
Looking outside of their raw numbers and impact on their teams this season we can consider what these rookies did with their respective cups of coffee in the NHL last season.
It’s hard to ignore that Cale Makar jumped into the NHL in the playoffs last spring, totaling 6 points (1 goal, 5 assists) in 10 games. He even scored the game-winner in his first game, Game Three against the Flames, and was vital to Colorado’s stunning upset over West-leading Calgary in that series.
Hughes played five games last year, totaling 3 assists. His best all-around performance though came in his first game against the Kings. His first point came after coming in from the blueline, banking the puck off the back of the net, and generating a rebound which Brock Boeser buried in one of the prettiest Canucks goals scored last season.
What they did in 18-19’ aside, it’s important to consider that Hughes is a full year younger than Makar, as he’s still only 20. Makar was also a higher overall pick than Hughes, going 4th in 2017 vs. Hughes’ 7th in 2018. Therefore, Makar had greater expectations that he would reach this level from the outset.
In addition, the biggest question mark for Hughes this season was his size and strength, which he quickly put to rest after quickly being promoted to the top Canucks D-pairing and powerplay unit within the first month of the season.
We had an idea that Makar would perform the way he did this season, but the fact that Hughes exceeded every expectation this year has to count for something in this tantalizingly close Calder race.
Lastly, Hughes came from behind to make this race a near toss-up. In the month of November, Makar shone with 16 points in 14 games and emphatically won NHL Rookie of the Month. It looked like a slam-dunk that he would win the Calder at that juncture.
While Makar had by no means fallen off as the season went on, Hughes has gotten better as the games have gotten more important.
Hughes also earned a spot in the All-Star Game, while Makar was snubbed (but definitely should’ve been there). Quinn even impressed the Great One in St. Louis:
If that wasn’t enough, Hughes followed up his ASG appearance by winning the NHL Rookie of the Month in February with 2 goals and 13 assists in 13 games. As the Canucks had been in the thick of their first true playoff race in half a decade, Hughes was looking like the best Canuck on the ice in many of those games as a mere 20 year-old.
Edge: Hughes. Being a year younger than Makar holds more weight for me than anything in this race, and the fact that Quinn exceeded lofty expectations this year and was getting better as the season progressed solidifies him as my Calder winner in 2019-2020.
If he wins, this young Canucks core will make history as the first team to win back-to-back Calder Trophies since the Bruins did it in 1967 and 1968 with Bobby Orr and Derek Sanderson. I think that’s pretty decent company to be in.