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Last spring, the NCAA saw a record-setting six defensemen reach the list of 10 finalists for the 2019 Hobey Baker Award. Almost a year later, three of those defensemen have earned prominent roles for their NHL clubs.
Those former college stars are Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, and Adam Fox, and each has swiftly transitioned to the NHL, where they all remain in contention for the 2020 Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.
1. Cale Makar
Alma Mater: Massachusetts Minutemen
2019-20 Stats: 42 GP, 11 G, 26 A, 37 Pts.
When the Colorado Avalanche drafted Bowen Byram with the fourth overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, Makar’s NHL resume had 10 playoff games on it, a stretch during which he had registered a goal and six points while gushing confidence backed up by strong play on both ends of the ice.
Since then, Makar — drafted fourth overall in 2017 — has accumulated 11 goals and 37 points in 42 regular-season games and has continued to be an exceptional two-way defenseman. With the expectation of Byram coming in next season and joining Makar — in addition to the breakout play of Samuel Girard — the Avalanche are building an eye-popping blue line.
For the analytical types, Makar’s possession metrics are just as nod-worthy as his fan-friendly stat line. While access to Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and more has certainly helped his offensive totals, Makar has taken advantage of opportunities and more often than not, follows through on risky plays, defensive pinches, and offensive drives.
His all-around game helped him earn the aforementioned 2019 Hobey Baker Award as the top player in NCAA hockey last season, and he is among the favorites to follow it up as the NHL’s top rookie. The 21-year-old has a long, successful career ahead of him and is priming himself to be a regular Norris Trophy candidate in his prime.
2. Quinn Hughes
Alma Mater: Michigan Wolverines
2019-20 Stats: 52 GP, 8 G, 31 A, 39 Pts.
Any Calder Trophy talk is not without the Vancouver Canucks’ Hughes, the seventh overall pick in 2018. The 20-year-old is as smooth as they come with highlight-reel edgework and acceleration that helps him quickly close gaps and evade opponents.
Hughes, 20, leads all rookies in scoring with 39 points (8 G, 31 A). But his two-point lead over Makar and four-point lead over Buffalo winger (and currently injured) Viktor Olofsson has come in 10 more games than the latter two.
Similarly to Makar, Hughes has been given access to young, dynamic forwards including Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and J.T. Miller. But just like Makar, he’s seizing and simultaneously earning that access.
Hughes was knocked for his diminutive 5-foot-10 frame, which many balked at on a defenseman. But he has shed a lot of criticism with his pure skating and offensive inclination, in addition to his underlying stats. That’s not to suggest any defensive lapses, because while Hughes doesn’t lay the massive hits or block shot after shot, he relies on his IQ to read plays and prevent most opportunities to pad those types of statistics.
Hughes has been a large part of the Canucks’ significant turnaround from last season, including pulling the power play from 22nd to eighth, and increasing the team’s point percentage from 23rd to 10th, which has currently put the team in first place in the Pacific Division.
3. Adam Fox
Alma Mater: Harvard Crimson
2019-20 Stats: 51 GP, 6 G, 23 A, 29 Pts.
Last season, Fox led all NCAA players in points per game (1.45) and chose to forgo his senior season to sign with the New York Rangers. Originally drafted by the Calgary Flames 66th overall in 2016, Fox’s rights were traded to Carolina along with Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland in 2018, in exchange for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm.
After rumors of his intention not to sign with the Hurricanes, Fox’s rights were traded once again, this time to the Rangers in exchange for the 37th pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, and a 2020 second-round draft pick.
Fox, who turns 22 this month, hasn’t garnered the same amount of talk as Makar and Hughes, but he absolutely deserves consideration for his rookie season. With 29 points (8 G, 21 A) in 51 games, he is proving to be a key piece of the blue line moving forward.
Fox’s offensive numbers aren’t quite up to those of Makar and Hughes, but that’s hardly due to a lack of skill, as he doesn’t receive the same amount of power play opportunity or overall ice time.
The trio’s underlying numbers are eerily similar, but Fox’s relative numbers, on-ice save-percentage (despite the worst team save-percentage of the three), and lowest offensive zone start percentage among the three help level the playing field.
Plenty can change over the last roughly 30 games of the season, but the path of NCAA development for defensemen is proving to go a long way for NHL clubs as the rookie of the year nominees push for an all alma-mater class.
Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @Jacob_Messing.