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.
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.