Zdeno Chara

Haggerty: McAvoy the driver behind any Bruins' future Cup run

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Haggerty: McAvoy the driver behind any Bruins' future Cup run

If and when the Bruins win another Stanley Cup in the next ten years, Bruins rookie defenseman Charlie McAvoy will be the major reason behind it.

Every Stanley Cup winner the past 10 years, save for last year’s aberrational Pittsburgh Penguins crew that did it all in the postseason without an injured Kris Letang, has employed a clear-cut No. 1 defenseman in his prime who plays huge minutes and excels in all situations. The Penguins have Letang when he’s healthy, the Blackhawks have Duncan Keith, the Los Angeles Kings have Drew Doughty, the Bruins had Zdeno Chara moving toward the back of his prime when they hoisted the Cup in 2011, the Red Wings had the same with Niklas Lidstrom in 2008 and the Ducks had Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer in 2007.

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McAvoy, who turns 20 on Dec. 21, isn’t quite there yet, obviously, but he is already a leading candidate for the Calder Trophy while leading all NHL rookies with 23:37 of ice time per game. That is very clearly somebody who's on the road to being a No. 1 defenseman in the NHL and it might not be too far into the future.

Not only is McAvoy the biggest rookie workhorse in the NHL, but he’s averaging more than four more minutes of ice time than first-year players Samuel Girard, Robert Hagg and Clayton Keller. It’s as much about a mindset with McAvoy as it is about the impressive physical gifts he brings to the table.

“There are a lot of people I like to take aspects from. Drew Doughty is one of them. Tyson Barrie is another one I like to watch. I think Kris Letang is an unbelievable defenseman with skating and ability both offensively and defensively,” said McAvoy. “All of these guys are complete players on their teams, they compete in every aspect and they’re all relied on for every situation. Those are the kind of guys I look up to.

“There are a lot of guys where I can try to pull things from their game and make it into my own. [Doughty] has achieved the label of what I want over my career, which is a complete defenseman that can kill penalties, play the power play, play a lot of minutes every night and be reliable and responsible while still being able to contribute all over the ice.”

The stellar first two months of this season are the kind of thing almost assumed for McAvoy after he came in for his NHL debut and averaged 26 minutes per game in Boston’s playoff series vs. the Ottawa Senators last spring. But doing it in theory and doing it, in reality, are two very different things in the world’s best hockey league. McAvoy is the rare young player who’s exceeding the hype. It’s the kind of performance out of a first-year player that’s made life a little easier for Bruce Cassidy in his first full year as head coach in Boston.  

“He’s efficient on the ice,” said Cassidy. “We talk about the big moments, and it doesn’t matter how many minutes he’s played on the ice. He seems to rise up, but he’s also efficient. There is not a lot of wasted energy. He doesn’t come back to the bench exhausted because he’s chasing guys all over the place. That’s hockey sense for one, and he seems to be a guy that can recover quickly, and that’s just in his DNA.”

The Bruins rookie D-man has been touted as this kind of workhorse player since back at his pre-draft rookie combine when he listed the Norris Trophy-winning Doughty as the model for his own game and made it known his biggest goal was to be the rare NHL blueliner able to do everything from power-play quarterback to shutdown defender.

Well, McAvoy is well on his way to that and even more. The teen-aged defenseman is becoming the best Bruins rookie D-man since a guy named Ray Bourque donned the Black and Gold almost 40 years ago and went on to become a generational defenseman and Hall of Famer.

So, where does it all come from? That ability to play huge minutes in all situations without his play suffering? To be able to make a positive impact at both ends of the ice for a team that badly needed their next franchise defenseman?

Some of it is the obvious natural “DNA”, as Cassidy would say, that made him the 14th overall pick in the 2016 draft when the Bruins called his name. It could have ended up being his BU teammate Dante Fabbro or the plummeting Jakub Chychrun as he fell out of the top 10. There were definitely voices at the Bruins draft table advocating for others aside from McAvoy. The right choice prevailed, however, as it so often does in a collaborative group discussion, and it’s easy to see why now with McAvoy’s strong, sturdy 6-foot, 210-pound frame that enduring a heavy NHL workload.

Still, there’s clearly more to it than just raw talent.

There’s also an economy of movement and workload with McAvoy where he makes quality, forward-moving choices in his own end, and therefore doesn’t burn a lot of energy chasing puck carriers or throwing down in front of his net.

“He has the puck a lot and makes good plays with it, so he’s not forced to defend a lot,” said Cassidy. “You expend a more energy generally in defending than you do attacking [in the offensive zone]. He makes his share of mistakes, but he recovers so quickly from them. He’s not a young guy that you have to talk off the ledge when he makes [the mistakes].

“He just gets back out there and understands turning the page. I’ve said that all along. I think that’s why he bounces back quicker than some younger guys, and gets himself back in there and keeps playing. That’s a mental talent that he has.”

Those simple, smart plays and pinpoint choices mean less of the grueling D-zone work on his shifts and a quick recovery time on the bench where he’s ready to hop over the boards again.

“There’s no way to really pace yourself as far as going out there and saying ‘I’m probably going to play this amount of minutes, so I might not push it on this shift.’ You go out and compete as hard as you can, and then you come right back whether it’s two minutes or 45 seconds and then go right back out there,” said McAvoy. “I don’t know if it’s a genetic thing. I don’t think it has anything to do with that. I think it just has to do with the way I play the game. One of the things I’ve heard in college and even before that in the [USNT Development Program] is kind of managing a hockey game.

“You play in a way where you look at a guy like Ryan Suter, and he can play in the high 20’s [for minutes of ice time] and 30 minutes, and he was playing that every game. The reason he could do that was because he was managing the game so well. He could play so effectively that he would make plays with the puck, and always put himself in a position where he didn’t have to overwork. I try and play the game hard and fast every shift – and not lackadaisical by any means – but I also try to play in a way where I’m effective, and I don’t feel tired when I’m coming back from the last shift. It’s also a testament to the stuff we do here with training and everything else too. All you have to do is just look at [Zdeno Chara], and some of our forwards that are playing 20 minutes a night.”

The other area where McAvoy separates from his peers?

The kid has an amazing ability to rise to the big occasions and seems to embrace the big stage rather than shrink away from it. He’s netted game-winners at the international and collegiate level and he’s lit up opponents with mid-ice hits that become the talk of the tournament. There’s a swagger and a confidence that comes with the talent and the work ethic, and that attitude shows in McAvoy’s play. That’s quite the opposite from the Bruins' last young, big-time defenseman in Dougie Hamilton, who most times preferred to be in the background and certainly had more desire to focus on his offensive responsibilities rather than the defensive and physical chores of the job.

“He just loves being out there. He’s not shy in the big moments and he doesn’t get nervous, so there’s another thing where more energy is expended when you’re nervous,” said Cassidy. “It’s just a lot of things in his makeup and in his personality that allows him to [play big minutes]. That’s what I see. He’s a special talent in that way.”

These are star qualities with McAvoy and the fact they’re appearing so early in his NHL career portends great things in his future. Clearly, it isn’t all going to be sunshine when it comes to a young D-man making his way through the NHL, and we see that with the minus-3 rating he carried into the game Thursday night with the Arizona Coyotes.

Clearly, with McAvoy, there is a spectacle aspect to his game where his talent jumps out at you even though he’s a 200-foot defenseman.

The game-winning roofed backhand in the shootout vs. the New Jersey Devils is something you just don’t see many D-men successfully pull off in an NHL game, and certainly not after playing 27-plus minutes of yeoman’s work in regulation play. He’s on pace for 13 goals and 49 points as a rookie defenseman. That would be quite a first NHL season for a player that basically jumped from NCAA to the NHL with just a couple of AHL games thrown in.

But the elite offensive skill sprinkled in with the occasional dazzling play is only part of the story with McAvoy’s impact on the Bruins. Instead, the difference-making quality will be McAvoy’s ability to shoulder a huge workload in all zones without his performance wavering and the ability to potentially do it for close to a 30-minute stretch per game for a prolonged period if/when the Bruins are Cup contenders once again.

The Bruins had that player for close to a 10-year stretch when they signed Chara back in 2006. They went on a run where they qualified for the playoffs eight consecutive seasons, won four divisional titles, appeared in two Cup Finals and memorably hoisted Lord Stanley after a memorable seven-game series in 2011.

Now Chara is 40 and transitioning into more of a straight shutdown defenseman. He simply isn’t capable of being a No. 1 for a two-month stretch in the playoffs. It may not be this season as McAvoy learns the NHL ropes and goes through all the different firsts that every rookie experiences.

But the grand possibilities are already there for the McAvoy and the Bruins a couple of seasons down the road thanks in large part to the best young D-man that the Black and Gold have had in a long, long time. If the Bruins are lucky enough to have another Cup parade over the next ten years with duck boats and all, the name McAvoy is going to be one of the big reasons behind it. 


 

Morning Skate: Carey Price is back to being himself, giving Habs confidence

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Morning Skate: Carey Price is back to being himself, giving Habs confidence

Nashville - Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading because the Patriots aren't on any TVs here in Nashville. Damn.

*You think you’ve had a tough day? At least you didn’t score on your own goal, then have Nazem Kadri laughing at you right to your face. Ouch, Kris Russell.

*Steve Simmons says that part of the trick in the NHL today is to find an “A” defenseman to build your team around, and that maybe Morgan Rielly is an A- defenseman that can be at the level of, say, a PK Subban. I’ve seen Rielly, and all due respect but he’s not that guy. I don’t think the Toronto Maple Leafs currently have that guy within their ranks, and that is part of the issue with an up-and-coming Maple Leafs club. Simmons also references the aging Zdeno Chara no longer being an “A” guy in Boston, but he isn’t going to need to be much longer with Charlie McAvoy continuing to look polished and poised beyond his years, and absolutely “A” defenseman material, as a rookie.

*Nathan MacKinnon has really turned it on with the Colorado Avalanche ever since the Matt Duchene trade, and continues to reclaim his game with that powerful skating stride.  

*Connor McDavid and Mike Smith are friends when they work out together in Toronto in the offseason, but they’re enemies during the War of Alberta.

*Interesting news from Pro Hockey Talk out of the KHL where Mike Keenan is out with the Kunlun Red Star as head coach/GM, and former Bruins player Bobby Carpenter has replaced him behind the bench on an interim basis.  

*Viktor Arvidsson delivering the engagement ring for a proposal right after a Nashville Predators game is unquestionably the video clip of the day

*Carey Price has played stellar hockey since coming back from his absence, and it’s allowing the Habs to play with confidence.

*For something completely different: Rolling Stone’s 50 best albums of 2017 just makes me feel really, really, really old.

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Early deficits are burying Bruins

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Early deficits are burying Bruins

Here’s what we learned in the Bruins 4-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night at the Honda Center:

1) The Bruins can’t afford to be the comeback kids anymore
At least not until the cavalry arrives with some more reserves. The B’s have done a good job of battling to stay in games and have even engineered some pretty solid comebacks to salvage points along the way, but they are so undermanned and outgunned due to injuries that they can’t dig their way out of early deficits. They simply don’t have the offensive firepower five-on-five. They aren’t functioning normally on the power play with David Krejci and Ryan Spooner out and they are being forced to work extremely hard for any offense they’re getting. Playing from behind and chasing the game just exacerbates all of these things and creates a pattern where the B’s are constantly climbing uphill. So, the Bruins allowing the first goal in 11 of their 17 games isn’t a good sign for a team that’s having trouble finishing plays and ideally employs a style where they’re playing with a lead. Instead, there are too many games such as  Wednesday night where it feels like a Herculean effort to just to get things back to even and every little mistake turns into a death sentence. 

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2) The Bruins can’t afford mental mistakes and focus problems from veterans
They certainly can’t survive them. Zdeno Chara has been very good this season and he’s had to be, given how many bodies the Bruins are missing. Wednesday night was one of the bad nights for the 40-year-old captain. To make matters worse on a night where he was a minus-3 overall, Chara had an uncharacteristic mental error at the worst possible time when he stopped playing to protest a call after he was getting a delayed penalty call on a Corey Perry drive to the net. Chara broke it up but was going to get called for a stick infraction, but instead, he lost focus to look at the ref for an instant and exactly at that time Josh Manson fired a puck off his skate directly in front of the net. That was Anaheim’s go-ahead goal after the Bruins had worked hard to tie it and the B’s started losing control of the game at that point. So, on the first night of a back-to-back on the West Coast, the Bruins played Chara a whopping 25:33 of ice time for a minus-3 performance where he clearly wasn’t at his best. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of hope that it’s going to be any better on Thursday night in Los Angeles. That doesn’t bode well for a Bruins team struggling to stay within shouting distance of a playoff spot.

3) Danton Heinen should be in Boston to stay
He’s still not exactly what he’s going to be when he’s fully developed as a player, but the crafty, skilled winger knows how to make plays in the NHL no matter who he’s playing with. Even better, he’s also showing some of the grit and battle that even skill players are going to need in order to create offense. On the goal he scored, Heinen won a couple of battles to extend the possession of the puck in the offensive zone and then took it straight to the middle of the net. Heinen waited out John Gibson, then lifted a backhanded bid after the Anaheim goalie impatiently dropped to the ice. Heinen, 22, is sixth on the Bruins in points (eight) despite starting the season in Providence and is showing the kind of talent that made him a top prospect coming out of the University of Denver. Heinen is on pace for 18 goals and 48 points and those are the kind of numbers they would gladly take from a young player in their time of need. Now, the Bruins just need Heinen to get even more dominant in terms of getting the puck on his stick and making things happen offensively.

PLUS
*Noel Acciari was a beast for the Bruins scoring a late goal, leading all players with 10 registered hits and blocking three shots despite having just returned from a broken finger.

*Heinen finished with the goal and three shot attempts in 14:26 of ice time and was one of the few Bruins players able to break through for some offense and create their own scoring chance that was a little closer to the net.

*Congrats to the Northeastern University hockey program for creating a pair of players, Kevin Roy and Josh Manson, who both scored for the Ducks. It was Roy’s first as an NHL player. For the Bruins, who covet American college hockey players, it had to burn them to watch the Ducks using that formula to beat them.

MINUS
*Zdeno Chara finished a minus-3 and had a distracted play in the second period where he was complaining about a penalty call, and allowed Manson to fire a puck off his skate when he stood right in front of the Boston net. It was not the B’s captain’s best night by a long stretch.

*Frank Vatrano finished a minus-2 with just a single shot on net and didn’t play with the same spirit, physicality and energy that he showed at home coming off being a healthy scratch. Vatrano needs to play every night the way he played last weekend at TD Garden against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

*Riley Nash had a fairly strong game, but he also had a pair of golden scoring chances where he was stopped by Gibson both tries including a double-stacked pad beauty in the second period and a clean breakaway in the third period. With so many players out, the Bruins need Nash to step up and finish some of those plays.