One of the most highly debated topics among hockey fans while the NHL season is on pause is which rookie deserves to win the 2020 Calder Trophy. 21-year-old Colorado Avalanche blueliner Cale Makar was the clear front-runner in the early goings of the season, but a mid-to-late season surge by 20-year-old Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes has made this year’s race one of the closest ones in recent memory.
At the time of the NHL pause, Hughes was leading all rookies in scoring with 53 points (eight goals) in 68 games, while Makar had 12 goals and 50 points in 57 games. Colorado has 12 games remaining on their regular-season schedule, while the Canucks have 13 games left. The Avalanche (92 points) are a lock for the playoffs in the Central Division, while Vancouver (78 points) is battling for playoff contention in a very tight Pacific Division.
With the NHL being on pause since March 13, 2020, it’s becoming more and more likely that the NHL won’t be able to conclude it’s 2019-20 regular season and would go straight into a playoff if they are able to resume play this spring/summer. Considering that the NHL awards have to voted on before the start of the playoffs, which of Hughes or Makar is most likely to win the 2020 Calder Trophy?
Stats Favour Makar
A quick glance at the stats will tell you why many Avalanche fans believe their rookie defenseman should be a lock for the prestigious Calder Trophy. Makar leads all rookies with 12 goals and is trailing Hughes by just three points in the scoring race despite missing 13 games due to injury this season. That’s where Makar’s case really gets made. Hughes only missed one game this season and still only has a three-point lead over Makar in the scoring race and has scored four fewer goals.
Plus-minus is a stat that is heavily scrutinized in the hockey community — and for good reason. It’s still something voters are going to glance over, and it’ll be hard to ignore Makar’s plus-14 rating compared to Hughes’ minus-10. The last time a defenseman won the Calder Trophy with a negative plus-minus rating was Denis Potvin (-17) all the way back in 1974. This stat will be given less value, however, if voters compare the two teams. Colorado is overall a much better team than Vancouver as exemplified by their plus-46 goal differential compared to Vancouver’s plus-11 goal differential. Colorado blueliner Ryan Graves leading the entire NHL with a plus-40 rating is very telling of just how good this Avalanche team is.
While Makar’s impressive point-per-game output will surely impress voters, he’s also comes out on top in some other key statistical areas. Makar has turned over the puck way less than Hughes (40 vs. 60 giveaways) and has racked up just one less takeaway than Hughes despite playing fewer games. Makar does trail Hughes in average ice time, as he’s playing 21:01 per game compared to Hughes’ 21:53, but it’s hard to see that being used heavily against him when you consider Colorado has a plethora of talent on the blueline, including Graves, Samuel Girard, Erik Johnson and Nikita Zadorov.
Hughes has the ‘MVP’ factor
While Makar’s 0.88 point-per-game output is no doubt better than Hughes’ 0.78 point-per-game output, Hughes triumphs Makar in the one area that possibly matters the most. Where would the Avalanche be without Makar vs. where would the Canucks be without Hughes? You can argue that the Canucks wouldn’t be a playoff team without Hughes and the Avalanche would still be a lock for the playoffs without Makar. That’s how much Hughes means to Vancouver. The Canucks haven’t had a game-changing blueliner this elusive and creative in a very, very long time.
Hughes can win the Calder over Makar because he means much more to his team. The Avalanche were a top-five offensive team at the time of the NHL’s pause and boast a well-balanced and loaded group of forwards that includes Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Valeri Nichushkin, JT Compher, Vladislav Namestnikov and Joonas Donskoi among others. You look behind the Canucks top offensive line of Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller and it simply pales in comparison to Colorado’s depth. Simply put, Hughes has done more with less.
Hughes ranks second on the Canucks in average ice time, while Makar comes in fourth on his squad due to the other talent around him. Makar wasn’t counted on to the extent Hughes was to be ‘the guy’ on the blueline and drive play every single night. These claims are backed up by convincing underlying metrics that more voters are starting to give weight to. Hughes owns a much better xGA and xGF and has a similar Corsi despite facing tougher matchups. Hughes’ 49.87 Expected-Goals-For, 44.49 Expected-Goals-Against and 52.64 Corsi Percentage is impressive when compared to Makar’s 37.16 xGF, 32.32 xGA and 52.33 CF% (5-on-5 stats via Natural Stat Trick).
The Impact of the Pause
Which of Hughes or Makar does the NHL suspension benefit the most? It has pros and cons for both player’s Calder hopes, but I argue that it benefits Hughes the most. The Canucks’ rookie was playing more of a role for the Canucks than Makar was for the Avalanche leading up to the pause. Makar is also at a disadvantage here as he missed five games due to an upper-body injury sustained in February, although he did rack up three assists in his return on March 11th before the NHL announced its hiatus.
HERO MODE pic.twitter.com/QQtlUNQ7o4
— DNVR Avalanche (@DNVR_Avalanche) March 12, 2020
Why Hughes benefits more from the pause is due to what he’s done for this team over the last few months. Since the All-Star break, Hughes leads all NHL defenseman in scoring with 19 points (three goals) in 20 games. This has helped Vancouver keep pace in the playoff race in a tight Pacific Division. If the NHL were to go straight into a playoff format and use point percentage to determine the standings, Vancouver would be a playoff team for the first time in five years. Almost everybody considered Colorado a lock for the playoffs entering the 2019-20 season, while the Canucks were viewed as a “bubble” team.
Why I think Makar would’ve or will benefit from the NHL resuming it’s regular season is making up for lost time due to injury. Makar only had two assists in five contests before the injury occured and his three-point dominant return was a possible indication of what was to come in the final stretch. The Canucks had lost five of their last seven games before the pause occured, so Vancouver slipping out of a playoff position down the final stretch would not bode well for Hughes’ Calder chances. Considering Colorado and Vancouver are listed with very similar strengths of schedule remaining, it’s hard to predict if Vancouver would’ve continued slipping or Hughes would’ve bolstered his Calder case even more by helping the team get back on track.
All the major stats will tell you Makar is the 2019-20 Calder Trophy winner, but the underlying metrics and the “eye test” are in favour of Hughes. As great as Makar has been, he hasn’t been relied upon the same way in which Hughes has.
This is one of those years where it’s going to be hard to get upset no matter which way it goes. Makar has had an incredible season and Hughes has helped transform Vancouver into a contender again. Ultimately, Makar may have the better stats on paper, but when you consider where the Canucks would be without Hughes, it’s hard not to hand the trophy to the Vancouver rookie.