NHL 24 cover athlete Cale Makar on Bobby Orr comparisons, more - ESPN

UniqueThis 73 August 14, 2023

Cale Makar can't quite comprehend how, after just four NHL seasons, he's being compared to perhaps the greatest defenseman in hockey history.

Wayne Gretzky said Makar is "the closest player we've ever seen offensively and defensively" to Boston Bruins legend Bobby Orr. Vegas Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy told "The Cam and Strick" podcast this month that Makar is "a modern-day Bobby Orr" and one of the toughest players in the league to game plan against.

"Those are crazy comments. To be compared to a guy like that is crazy," Makar told ESPN last week. "It's hard for me to comprehend that. I'm 24. The amount that he accomplished in his career is pretty much insurmountable. I'm nowhere near that point yet. Obviously, a comparison is a comparison. But for me, [I'm] just kind of bringing it down to Earth a little bit."

The comparison exists because of their dominant play and the accolades they earned. Orr was NHL rookie of the year. So was Makar. Orr was nominated for the Norris Trophy in each of his first four seasons. Makar has been a finalist in his past three, winning it in 2021-22. He won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP that season too, becoming the youngest defenseman to do so since Orr in 1970.

"Anytime you're compared to somebody like that, obviously you're humbled," Makar said. "But at the same time, I just feel like I've almost done nothing yet here. I'm still so young."

This month, Makar added another accomplishment to his ever-growing list: He's the cover athlete for "NHL 24," the latest title from EA Sports in its hugely popular hockey video game series. The latest edition is expected to be released this October, with a slew of new innovations in gameplay.

"It's so cool. When they were considering me to be a part of this, it was just kinda like a 'wow' moment. You grow up, you play all these games," Makar said.

GROWING UP IN Calgary, Makar remembers Flames Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla making the cover. The first EA Sports NHL game Makar really got into was in 2007, when Alex Ovechkin was the face of the game.

Being on the cover of "NHL 24" has been a good excuse for Makar to get reacquainted with his inner gamer. He said he played a lot of video games during the NHL's COVID-impacted 2021-22 season, when everyone briefly became an indoor kid. He plays here and there during the Avalanche season, and he has teammates who are gamers; Nathan MacKinnon has streamed his "Fortnite" exploits on Twitch, for example.

But as an EA Sports cover athlete, "it'll definitely be cool to get back into it, as I feel like I kind of have to play it now," he said.

Makar is just the third defenseman in the past 20 years to make the cover of the game, along with Dion Phaneuf ("NHL 09") and P.K. Subban ("NHL 19").

"Geez, I didn't actually realize that until now," Makar said. "I feel like there's definitely a lot more D-men that could be on the cover. We'll make a run at it here, I think."

Makar is the most decorated member of a wave of young, talented defensemen that includes 25-year-old Adam Fox (New York Rangers), who won the Norris in 2021 and finished ahead of Makar in this year's voting; 24-year-old Miro Heiskanen (Dallas Stars); 23-year-olds Rasmus Dahlin (Buffalo Sabres) and Quinn Hughes (Vancouver Canucks); 22-year-old Moritz Seider (Detroit Red Wings); and the other elder statesmen of the group, 25-year-olds Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins) and Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning).

"[Cale] is a massively successful player already at such a young part of his career. We feel he's the kind of player that no matter who you support, you can't help but appreciate what he brings to the ice," said Mike Inglehart, senior design director at EA Sports and one of the architects of the "NHL 24" edition. "There was a natural fit to not just what he's accomplished and what people appreciate about him as a player, but also how he embodies some of the features in our gameplay."

MAKAR'S 2021-22 SEASON was one of the best for a defenseman in recent NHL history. He registered 86 points in 77 games and led the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup title with 29 points in 20 playoff games.

But defending that championship proved difficult for the Avalanche thanks to personnel changes and a swath of injuries, including a hip ailment for Makar that he has nursed this offseason. They won the Central Division again but were eliminated in the first round by the Seattle Kraken.

"We had the pieces where we could have made another good run at it. It was just a tough season for injuries, myself included," he said. "We just kept sputtering out of the game. There were times when we felt really confident as a team, but at the same time we never really got everybody back to 100 percent. We never felt like we were the super-confident group like we were the year before."

Makar believes the lineup absences undermined the Avs' season. "At one point we had eight or nine call-ups in the lineup. We're fortunate that we have really good depth, but when you're switching around lines that much, it gets pretty mentally draining for a lot of guys, having to learn new tactics and things like that," he said.

In his ruminations about the dark clouds of last season, Makar eventually landed on a silver lining. The Avalanche played a lot of hockey en route to winning the Stanley Cup. They had to grind through adversity to make the playoffs in 2022-23. Maybe a brief postseason was, in some way, what they needed.

"At the end of the day, I think it was kind of a blessing in disguise," Makar said. "It was a long year. Hopefully everybody can use that to our advantage this season."

The Avalanche retooled a bit this offseason, bringing in former Lightning forward Ross Colton, former New Jersey Devils winger Miles Wood and former Montreal Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin, among others. The biggest move they made is the one Makar is excited about: center Ryan Johansen, acquired from the Nashville Predators. While his offensive numbers have dropped over time, Johansen remains well above average on faceoff winning percentage -- in particular finding ways to snap the puck back to his defensemen at the blue line in the attacking zone.

Makar admits he has gotten on teammates for "not winning draws as much as we should be." He sees Johansen's abilities on faceoffs akin to those of Nazem Kadri, whose departure from the Avalanche in 2022 left a hole at No. 2 center that Johansen will attempt to fill.

"It's fun to have a guy like that because I feel like winning faceoffs is a huge, overlooked part of the game," he said. "If you can grab that possession right away, you're gonna control the first 30 seconds of play."

ANOTHER CHANGE IN the Colorado lineup is on the blue line: Erik Johnson, the 35-year-old veteran who helped mentor Makar, moved on to the Sabres.

Johnson was a veteran voice in the locker room. So is captain Gabriel Landeskog, who is expected to miss the 2023-24 season after knee surgery. That's a lot of leadership leaving the Colorado locker room this season. Will Makar become a more vocal leader in their absence?

"I think to be a leader, there has to be a vocal aspect of it. I'm definitely a more reserved guy, but I'll talk when things need to be said," Makar said. "I feel like this year was a big learning curve for me."

Landeskog missed all of the 2022-23 season as well, despite some moments when it appeared he might return to the lineup.

"A guy like Landy ... everybody leans on him. So everybody took that extra weight on their shoulders -- me, Nate, Mikko [Rantanen] and others," said Makar. "Coming into this season, knowing that Landy is going to be out for the entire year, I think we're more prepared and ready for that. I'm confident that everybody's going to take another big step in leadership."

Makar has kept an eye on NHL offseason news -- in particular the recent trade that saw 2022-23 Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson move from the San Jose Sharks to the Pittsburgh Penguins in an intricate transaction that also involved the Canadiens.

"That was a crazy trade. Guys from the team were texting and were like, 'Wow, that's a lot of moving pieces.' It must have been one of the biggest trades in NHL history," Makar said. "You obviously have two [talented] guys there now with [Kris] Letang and Karlsson. It'll be interesting to see that dynamic because you have two righties in the back that are so, so good. I'm excited to watch that team. When you put their stars up front like that and you have the back-end talent, they'll be a fun team to watch."

Like so many other young Canadians, Makar remembers watching Penguins star Sidney Crosby score the "Golden Goal" to win the 2010 Winter Olympic men's ice hockey tournament in Vancouver. Crosby will be 38 years old when the 2026 Winter Olympics are held in Italy, marking what could potentially be his third appearance in the tournament. Makar hasn't yet had the honor of representing Canada at the Olympics or at the World Cup of Hockey, which also could return in the next few years.

He's excited for the chance, provided NHL players participate in the Olympics for the first time since the 2014 Sochi Games.

"Everybody wants a best-on-best [tournament]. To be part of international events again would be huge for the league," Makar said. "Hopefully we can figure something out. Because it would be super exciting."

Exciting for Makar, as he could potentially accomplish something his "rival" Bobby Orr never did: winning Olympic gold. Exciting for hockey fans, who could see Makar playing with and against the best in the world, giving the "NHL 24" cover athlete yet another achievement to add to his own hockey legend.