New age of an NHL defensive pairing looks like Avalanche’s Cale Makar-Devon Toews
When Nathan MacKinnon is impressed with speed, it has to be really fast.
The Avalanche superstar skates, stick-handles and shoots quicker than anyone on the team — and maybe the world.
But he knows two guys who move the puck up ice just as well, if not better, and that’s Colorado’s new first pairing of Cale Makar and Devon Toews.
“Man, those two can move the puck,” MacKinnon said on the first day of training camp. “Already a lot of fun to play with them.”
Makar-Toews is the poster pairing for today’s NHL — elite skaters and playmakers who lack great size but don’t need it to defend. They defend well with their legs, sticks, and positioning, then lead the transition up ice and feed the forwards.
Toews, acquired from the salary-cap strapped New York Islanders for two second-round draft picks in October, said he and Makar share a similarly high hockey “IQ.” They both stand around 6-foot and 190 pounds.
“I think we skate so well and see the ice quite similarly and we can both jump up and create offense as well,” he said. “And we defend. We’re aggressive in our D-zone. We try to stop plays, and stop pucks, so that we can go play offense. So I think that all kind of catered towards playing together. It’s using our IQ to stop opponents and get the puck into the playmaker’s hands.”
Makar, 22, is the reigning Calder Trophy winner as NHL rookie of the year. He shoots right and his defensive responsibilities will increase this season and some predict he’ll be in the Norris Trophy running as the NHL’s best defenseman.
Toews, 26, is a “poor-mans” Makar who shoots left. The right shot-left shot arrangement is another strength for the tandem, with both guys playing on their strong side and accepting most passes on their forehand.
Makar on Toews (pronounced Taves): “You can just tell, he thinks the game really fast and moves the puck really well. I can’t wait to truly get in there with him (in the regular season).”
Avs coach Jared Bednar expects Makar and Toews, as well as second-pairing defenseman Sam Girard, to log 22-25 minutes of ice time per night. Girard (5-10, 170) is also a great skater and puck-mover.
Colorado has three bigger defensemen in Erik Johnson (6-4, 225), Ryan Graves (6-5, 220) and Ian Cole (6-1, 225). Makar mostly partnered with Graves last season.
In the Avs’ top-six defensive corps, Toews replaces the hulking Nikita Zadorov (6-6, 235), who was traded to Chicago for forward Brandon Saad. Colorado replaced an inconsistent shutdown defenseman with a proven three-zone performer and created what looks like the league’s ideal pairing — at least on paper.
“I love the way they skate,” Bednar said of his top pairing. “You got two guys who can really skate. And real intelligent hockey players.”
About Toews in particular, “Real good stick,” Bednar said. “Real good defender. A lot like Makar when it comes to their defending because they skate so well. They’re hard to beat. And then when things transition they’re looking to be part of it, looking to help lead our offense and get our offense moving in the right direction. So they think alike and as their communication improves and they get to know each other well I think they’re going to be a real tough pair to play against.”
Stanley Cup champion and NHL Network analyst Ken Daneyko was a rugged, old-school defenseman who played 1,283 games for the New Jersey Devils from 1983 to 2003. Times have changed. You no longer have to be bigger than elite forwards to defend them. You just have to be as skilled and skate as well as them.
“(Toews) is a guy that can get the puck out of your zone, as far as zone exits, and he’s very sound defensively. He’s mobile, he uses his stick well, but his skating ability is second to none,” Daneyko said. “He’s a fast guy from the way the game has gone from a defensemen standpoint with a lot of young players, but he was a pleasant surprise when the Islanders played extremely well and obviously, for cap reasons, they had to let him go and for Colorado, the rich get richer.
“Now you pair him with a Cale Makar. We know how dynamic he is, a Calder Trophy winner. So, as a pair, (they) potentially could be an excellent pair. Certainly should be able to get the puck out of their zone quickly because of the great skating ability for both guys. Devon Toews may be a little more sound defensively, so it allows Makar to be Makar and be that (offensive) guy.”
Makar and Toews are Canadians who took the NCAA route to the NHL. Toews, from Abbotsford, British Columbia, played for Quinnipiac University and signed with the Islanders after his junior season in 2016 — after he helped the Bobcats reach the NCAA championship game against North Dakota. Makar, from Calgary, Alberta, played two seasons for Massachusetts from 2017-19, leading the Minutemen to the 2019 national championship game against Minnesota-Duluth.
Toews and Makar were both on the losing end of their final NCAA game. But now they’re major pieces to what could become the Avalanche’s third NHL championship.