Ryan Johansen was near the front of the net on the first day of practice this season with his new team when he saw Avalanche superstar Cale Makar shoot the puck from the perimeter of the offensive zone.
Johansen has been credited with a tipping a shot 76 times in his career, and scored a goal on nearly one-quarter of them. As the puck whistled past him, something strange happened.
It didn’t take long for Johansen to learn just how different Makar’s wrist shot can be.
“Cale came over and was like, ‘Don’t worry, ‘Jo’ — I’m not gonna hit you,’” Johansen said. “That just gives you an understanding of how confident he is with where he can place it.”
Makar has evolved into the league’s best all-round defenseman in his young NHL career. He won the Norris Trophy in 2022, might have had a chance to repeat last season had he not missed so many games with injuries and is currently on a crash course with Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes for what could be an epic two-man race for the award in the final months of this campaign.
He can do it all. He is among the best skaters and passers in the world. His ability to defend and get his team out of danger, along with world-class offensive impact, might ultimately place him among the all-time greats by the end of his career.
One skill that can go overlooked at times is his ability to shoot the puck. Specifically, Makar’s wrist shot is the best at his position in the NHL.
“The release is really quick,” first-year Avs forward Jonathan Drouin said. “(Valeri Nichushkin) and I have talked about it. We don’t always know when it’s coming for the tips. He’s so fast with his feet that it almost makes it look faster when he releases it. I think he hides his release really well, where he’s moving his feet and you don’t really think he’s going to shoot it but he still has the ability to.”
Makar’s wrist shot combines speed, deception and pinpoint accuracy. He became the franchise’s all-time leading goal scorer among defensemen Wednesday with No. 76.
He collected a loose puck in the neutral zone while Colorado was shorthanded, zipped past a couple of Washington Capitals players and then fired a wrist shot through one last defender. It was a glove-side shot and the goaltender barely reacted before the puck was behind him.
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“He has a history of creating space for himself using his speed,” Avalanche skills coach Toby Petersen said. “So he finds himself in a position to get that shot off a lot, because you saw it (Wednesday) night on the rush — he comes with so much speed that the ‘D’ backs off and then he uses the ‘D’ as a screen. He creates space for himself to do whatever he wants with the puck.”
Fifty-one of Makar’s career goals have been logged as a wrist shot, while 10 more have come on snapshots. He’s tied for third among defensemen with 11 goals this season, and seven of them were wristers.
The days of the top offensive defenseman blasting slap shots from the points are long gone. Makar’s wizardry comes from a different set of skills that all coalesce in a unique weapon for the Avalanche.
How does he do it? What about Makar makes his wrist shot so effective?
“I could come up with about 10 different answers to this,” Petersen said.
We’ve already touched on how Makar can score off the rush. His ability to join the forwards, or even lead them, is among the best in the league.
What separates him is his work along the blue line. When anyone thinks of a classic slap shot from a defenseman, it’s almost always coming from either the left or right point.
Modern defensemen have to be able to move along the top of the offensive zone. Makar does this as well as anyone. He can shoot from anywhere, and just at about anytime.
That’s one thing his teammates marvel at.
“He gets off really quick and it’s so accurate,” defense partner Devon Toews said. “It’s got speed on it, even when he’s in a tough spot or he’s off-balance on his back foot, he’ll still get really good juice on it.”
Added Drouin: “I wouldn’t want to (penalty) kill with Cale on top, to be honest with you. The feet and the hands move so quick. You might think you’re in the shooting lane and half a second later, you’re not at all and he’s getting the shot through. He’s so unpredictable that sometimes he’ll even surprise us.”
Earlier in this season, the Avalanche power play became too one-dimensional. It relied too heavily on Makar shooting from the middle of the ice at the top of the zone. It was still an effective strategy — either he scored or one of the forwards tipped one of his shots. At one point, the Avs scored a power-play goal in nine straight games.
Jared Bednar felt it could be even better. Drouin moved to the top unit to infuse a little more creativity, and the group focused more on moving the puck quicker and finding openings from all angles. Nathan MacKinnon scored twice on the power play Wednesday night from nearly the same place on the ice, but how Makar and Mikko Rantanen teamed up to get him the open look changed.
Nichushkin leads the NHL with eight tip-in goals this season. Rantanen is tied for second with seven. Most of those have come on Makar shots.
He has the ability to shoot at his teammates’ sticks. He and Rantanen have developed enough chemistry where Makar will act like he’s going to shoot on net, but he’s actually aiming for Rantanen’s stick off to the side for a tight-angle deflection that goalies have no chance on if it connects.
“Just how mechanical and effortless it looks for him. It’s so precise,” Johansen said. “Those things are so hard to do and he makes it look so easy. It’s just another reason in this specific instance why he’s so special.”
Makar’s natural athletic ability is a big part of this. MacKinnon said he’s good at every sport they’ve played together, whether it’s hitting the ball a mile on the golf course or hooping on a basketball court.
His elite work ethic is also a significant factor.
“I think a lot of it is just lots of practice,” Makar said. “The big thing is always trying to be deceptive. I try to put myself in a spot where I can change the angle very readily. That’s how I look at it.
“There’s a lot of practice to try and get that quick snap from it.”
Makar also said he can shoot it harder now than earlier in his career, and he’s increased his ability to be less straightforward with when, where and how he shoots it.
Petersen broke down how Makar is able to generate so much velocity.
“When he has the time and space, he gets his whole body into it,” Petersen said. “His lower body is engaged. He gets his hands away out in front of him to really use the flex in his stick. He uses all the tools at his disposal to rip the puck.
“If he gets his hands out in front of him and adds that little extra time as he’s pulling his top hand back, it gets a little more bow on the stick and the puck is just going to fly off his blade.”
Makar has spent most of his life shooting pucks. Defensemen from his generation didn’t spend nearly as much time working on the big slap shot, because forwards are so much better now at blocking them.
He needs to be quick and deceptive. Just shooting through bodies during practice is one way to hone his craft, but Petersen detailed another way that might involve fewer instances of friendly fire.
Makar takes a tire out on the ice with him. He places it about three feet in front of him. The object is shoot the puck through the tire, but still place it in one of the four corners of the net.
“That simulates what he can do on a power play,” Petersen said. “He can move across the blue line and create a seam for himself or just enough space to get that puck off in such a hurry that it’s a threat to score every time he shoots.”
Much like how one of MacKinnon’s superpowers is the stamina he builds up with rigorous training, Makar’s ability to shoot the puck at a world-class level starts away from the ice surface.
Older players focused on building brute physical strength. For modern NHLers, it’s just like the evolution that has occurred in other sports. NFL quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen generate incredible passes not with pure arm strength, but through hip rotation and mechanics that start from their core.
“The core work these guys are doing is huge,” Petersen said. “There’s an understanding that goes back not lots of years, but several years now about where power is generated from. It’s in your core. These guys do so much core work to stay strong. A wrist shot, as much as any shot, is about core strength. The ability to pull through with the arms and shoulders and everything working in conjunction with each other is huge.
“If you don’t put the time in the weight room, you have no chance of shooting like Cale. I don’t care who you are. You have to put in the time to get stronger and quicker and more explosive, not just with your feet and your legs but your upper body too. It all works together.”
One of Makar’s teammates who knows him best offered a simpler explanation.
“Whatever he does, no one else can do,” Toews said.