Quinn Hughes versus Cale Makar: Who’s really in the lead for the 2024 Norris?

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
6 months ago
With a goal and an assist on route to a 5-2 victory on Wednesday evening, round one of the head-to-head matchup between Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes definitely went to Makar.
But for these two elite defenders, there’s another matchup that’s been occurring throughout the 2023/24 season, and that’s a neck-and-neck race for the next Norris Trophy. In anticipation of Wednesday’s game, a bit of an impromptu “Hughes versus Makar” debate broke out on various social media platforms, and we figured there was no better time for a deep-dive of our own into the two-horse 2024 Norris race.
So, who’s really been the NHL’s best defender through the first two months of the regular season?
Counting Stats
Despite being outscored by Makar on Wednesday, Hughes remains the NHL’s leading scorer with 31 points in 20 games. That’s a one point lead on teammate JT Miller, and a two-point lead on Makar, who sits in a tie for third place.
As far as counting stats go, both Hughes and Makar are having what can only be described as historical seasons. There’s nothing not to like here.
2023/24Quinn HughesCale Makar
Average TOI24:3723:58
From NHL.com
As hard as it might be to believe, Makar — who missed a couple of games with an undisclosed injury in late October — has actually been scoring at a higher rate than Hughes.
In terms of pure counting stats, Hughes has the edge in games played, goals, points, and minutes. Makar takes the lead in assists, points-per-game, and plus/minus.
It’s a dead heat, in other words.
It might be worth noting here that this is the fourth consecutive season in which Makar has scored at a greater-than-PPG rate, whereas it’s a first-time occurrence for Hughes. If we were trying to determine which of the two is “most improved,” it’s Hughes by a mile. But that’s not the award we’re shooting for here.
To really figure out who’s been the league’s best D in 2023/24, we need to go deeper.
Defensive Play
As good as both these players have been at putting points on the board, that’s still not their primary job. Hughes and Makar are defenders, and what they’re supposed to be doing is right there in the name.
So, which of the two has been better in their own end?
Get used to hearing this a lot in this article, but…it’s pretty tough to call.
2023/24Quinn HughesCale Makar
On-Ice Goals For2827
On-Ice Goals Against1312
Goals For %68.29%69.23%
From NaturalStatTrick.com, representing even-strength play
There’s virtually nothing here to distinguish between the two.
Makar has allowed one fewer goals against, but has played in two fewer games. He’s got the higher goals-for percentage, but by less than a percentage point.
There is more context to apply here when it comes to quality of teammates and competition, and we’ll get to that later. Suffice it to say, however, that both Hughes and Makar are have been defensively-sound to an extraordinary degree, especially given their excessively-heavy workload.
That shows up in their advanced analytics, too.
Fancy Stats
Prepare to feast your eyes on some of the sparklingest fancy statlines you’re ever going to see.
2023/24Quinn HughesCale Makar
Corsi 55.37%56.91%
Shot Control52.23%56.72%
Expected Goals48.67%66.12%
Scoring Chances54.47%57.84%
High-Danger Scoring Chances50.68%56.48%
From NaturalStatTrick.com, representing even-strength play
There is a little more separation here, and it’s all leaning in Makar’s favour. Not only does he beat Hughes cleanly in each statistical category, he’s so far ahead in stuff like Expected Goals and High-Danger Chances as to bear some highlighting.
What this really means, in a general sense, is that Makar’s team is consistently getting more likely scoring chances when he is on the ice, and fewer likely scoring chances against, compared to when Hughes is on the ice for the Canucks.
Both statlines are fancy, but Makar’s is decidedly fancier.
Then again, context is everything.
Hockey-Reference collects a stat called “Relative Corsi,” in which a player’s on-ice Corsi is compared to their team’s Corsi while they are off the ice. Here, we see a very different story.
2023/24Quinn HughesCale Makar
Relative Corsi8.9%2.0%
On-Ice Shooting Percentage14.3%16.0%
On-Ice Save Percentage92.9%90.8%
From Hockey-Reference.com, representing even-strength play
Hughes has a nearly-9% lead in possession metrics than the rest of the Canucks when he isn’t on the ice. Compare that with Makar’s 2% lead, and it isn’t hard to draw the obvious conclusion: Makar benefits from playing on a Colorado roster that is still very much a clear-cut Cup contender.
We included a few other teammate-related stats on that chart, and they show much of the same. Makar enjoys a higher team shooting percentage while he’s out there, while Hughes receives a higher save percentage — thanks, Thatcher Demko.
We’ve heard a lot about “PDO” this season, and there Hughes and Makar are within 0.3 of one another.
So, if anyone is being boosted by a higher-than-normal PDO, it’s both of them.
At this point, the race is still too close to call. But speaking of teammates, it’s time to take a gander at deployment, which really helps to tell the full story of a defender’s contributions.
Both Hughes and Makar play a role of the utmost importance for their individual teams, and that can be seen clearly in their deployment charts.
From HockeyViz.com
Let’s make no bones about it. Both Hughes and Makar play an awful lot of minutes against top-line and top-six competition, and both skate away from it looking amazing.
But if the question is of who faces the more difficult deployment, night in and night out, it’s got to be Hughes.
It’s close. But Hughes both plays a higher portion of his minutes against top-notch competition, and plays fewer of his minutes with top-notch teammates. Take a look at the left side of that chart for Makar. It’s practically pushing off the page, because Makar spends the vast majority of his time out there with names like Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and his dedicated D partner Devon Toews.
Hughes gets plenty of support from Elias Pettersson, JT Miller, and Filip Hronek. But he plays with everyone, and he finds the same relative level of success with everyone.
The deployments are comparable, but Hughes has a distinct edge here. Makar even starts more of his even-strength shifts in the offensive zone than Hughes, to the tune of 59.6% to 57.1%.
Neither is playing any form of sheltered minutes. But Makar still receives a modicum of sheltering on the basis of the sheer talent that is on the ice with him at all times.
The Eye-Test and the Actual Norris Race
If we were able to hand the Norris out based on who looks like the best defender in the NHL, we’d probably have to hand it to Hughes.
Sure, both players are highly-dynamic out there, and you can’t go wrong with either. But whereas Makar appears as one of many well-oiled cogs in an Avalanche machine, anyone who tunes into a Canucks game can see Hughes head-and-shoulders above the rest as the man in control on the ice.
He’s doing things this year that haven’t been seen in the league in a long, long time.
But the Norris Trophy is often less about appearances, and more about perception. As in, reputation. And that’s why, with this race so close right now, Hughes actually has more ground to make up than one might reasonably assume.
Makar has the distinct advantage of having already won the Norris. That means that, if things are still at a dead-heat come April, Makar is far more likely to take home the hardware as someone that voters are already familiar and comfortable with.
In order to be ordained as the NHL’s greatest defender, Hughes is probably going to have to further distinguish himself from Makar.
Continuing to hold the scoring lead will help. Continuing to be a defensive rock will help. Continuing to face more difficult deployment with less support from teammates will help.
And if he’s going to take home the Norris in 2024, Hughes might need all that and more.
Which, of course, takes nothing away from the ultimate greatness of his 2023/24 campaign.
It just means he’s got competition.

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