DENVER — On the night the Colorado Avalanche clinched their first Stanley Cup Final berth since 2001, Wayne Gretzky showered defenseman Cale Makar with some high praise on the TNT postgame show, saying Makar is the closest player we've seen to Bobby Orr.
The former Boston Bruins defenseman is likely best known for his flying goal to clinch the 1970 Stanley Cup in overtime, but it's a perfect illustration of how impactful he was on both ends of the ice, much like Makar, the 2020 Calder Trophy winner, is today.
Rarely do we see a defenseman with that kind of offensive impact who is defensively dominant as well.
Dougie Hamilton can distribute for the New Jersey Devils and pick up a ton of points, but he's not the toughest defensive blueliner in the league. Across the river in New York, Adam Fox jumps into a play like a forward, but his defensive acumen isn't quite as strong as his offensive prowess. Roman Josi does just about everything well on both ends of the ice, and it shows in the way the Nashville Predators control the shot share and the expected goals when he's on the ice.
Josi and Makar matched up in what proved to be an uneventful first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it was a mere primer for what's to come this week in the Cup Final. Makar might be the best defenseman in the world, but he's about to face the most consistently elite defenseman over the last eight years in Victor Hedman.
"Obviously, I watched quite a bit of (Hedman and Josi) during the regular season and then even before I came into the league as well. It's fun going against them," Makar said Tuesday during his pre-Final media availability.
"You get to see them. It's awesome when you get to be on the ice with them. Obviously, it's not an individual competition, stuff like that. That's not the way that I perceive things at all, but no, anytime you get to get a matchup like this, it's going to be exciting."
Makar also talked about how he had watched Hedman before coming into the league and even watched clips of him recently—not necessarily in preparation for a Final run, but just because he likes watching the smooth-skating Swede.
Who doesn't? The 31-year-old won the Norris Trophy in 2018 and has been a finalist for the award given to the league's top defenseman each year since 2017. He was named the Conn Smythe winner during the 2020 Stanley Cup Final in the bubble with a 22-point performance in 25 games. It's remarkable production, but Makar could blow that mark out of the water this year.
The 23-year-old UMass product already has 22 points in 14 games, leading to more of that high praise, but this time by Hedman himself at media day.
"He's trending towards being one of the best defensemen to ever play this game," Hedman told Sportsnet.
The two might have similar numbers, but there are differences in their games.
Makar kills penalties and plays with a little more physicality than Hedman. He also jumps into plays like a forward, which gives the Avs a more dangerous look when he's on the ice. It's tough enough to contain Colorado when they have three forwards, considering how loaded that group is up front, so with Makar on the ice, it tilts.
Makar and his defense partner Devon Toews are such deft puck movers and skilled passers that they can expertly navigate the puck into the offensive zone with precision, get it up to their forwards, start the play and keep it going for the next line.
But Hedman's game is a little more subtle. While Makar is a human highlight reel, Hedman is more likely to be noticed for breaking up a play, sliding a slick pass to a forward to start a play on the other end, his power-play shot and his retrievals. At 6'6", his reach is considerably more than Makar, who is only 5'11".
"He's so good everywhere on the ice," Makar said of the Tampa Bay Lightning blueliner. "You look at his game, he's defensively sound. He can do everything, but at the same time, he contributes offensively, and I think that's what makes a good defenseman nowadays is being able to contribute on all ends of the ice. Overall, he's just a very complete player, and I really enjoy watching him."
Neither one has many weaknesses, and their strengths are endless. They play similar minutes, and they quarterback two of some of the best power plays in the league. One could win the Conn Smythe, while the other could win the Norris (Josi, the 2020 winner, is also a finalist).
Defensemen are so difficult to develop but so influential on the ice. A matchup like this in a championship series is as rare as Hedman and Makar themselves.
"Hopefully, it's fun for the fans," Makar said.