The “Bruins at the Break” is a five-part series this week with the B’s on a bye, and will examine the first half of the regular season and how it could potentially impact the remaining 31 games in the second half of the year. Today we look at the biggest disappointment prior to the All-Star break.
The list of disappointments isn’t very long for the Boston Bruins through the first 51 games of the regular season.
They built up 70 points and hold a seven-point lead in the division, and many of their key players including David Pastrnak, Tuukka Rask, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo are enjoying excellent seasons.
However, it hasn’t been all that great over the last six weeks, as the Bruins have battled a bit with their focus after getting out to a double-digit points lead in the first half of the year, but on balance things have been good for the B’s.
There have been some individual disappointments, however, and the play of young defenseman Charlie McAvoy has been the biggest one to date.
Fresh off a strong postseason run to the Stanley Cup Final and signing a three-year bridge contract that many thought was going to be for many more years and much more money, expectations were sky-high for the 22-year-old defenseman entering his third full season.
After all, the third year at the NHL level is usually when young No. 1 defensemen really come into their own and really begin to dominate at both ends of the ice. Drew Doughty finished in the Top 10 in Norris Trophy voting and got All-League consideration in his third season, P.K. Subban won a Norris Trophy in his third NHL season and Erik Karlsson scored 78 points and won his first Norris Trophy in his third NHL season as well.
Some other high-end D-men like Victor Hedman took longer to develop, of course, but the 6-foot-6 Hedman also entered the league at 18 years old with an incredibly raw offensive game in a shutdown defenseman’s body.
McAvoy this season has done some good things, so it’s far from an out-and-out disaster. He leads the Bruins with 23:14 of ice time per game in his 48 games played this season, and he’s remained relatively healthy after being plagued with injuries in his first couple of seasons.
McAvoy is blocking shots and playing the physical game most nights, and he’s taken some big, big hits from opponents including getting lined up by T.J. Oshie in a message-sending game by the Capitals right before Christmas. There are some nights he’s been excellent and simply playing instinctively up to his skill level rather than showing the tentativeness that hurts his overall game.
"With Charlie, it’s just, he’s got to stay in the moment, that’s when he plays his best hockey. We’re not in there feeding him,” said Burce Cassidy. “It’s not information overload for that particular type of player. It’s protect the middle of the ice, be assertive with the puck when you see ice and make good decisions when to go.”
But the 22-year-old has seemingly regressed a bit offensively without a single goal in the first half of the season prior to the All-Star break, and is on pace for a very disappointing 28 points for the entire season.
To put it in perspective, Par Lindholm, David Backes, Jeremy Lauzon and Connor Clifton all have more goals than the offensively gifted McAvoy this year. That is not how anybody envisioned things going for a player in McAvoy who many tapped as a potential Norris Trophy candidate this season. Watching players like John Carlson and Roman Josi perform this season makes one realize just how far McAvoy is from reaching that level of play anytime soon.
There have also been some games like the one in Pittsburgh right before the All-Star break when he coughed up a puck to Evgeni Malkin behind the Boston net in the third period, and that directly led to the B’s losing the game. That particular defeat led to Bruce Cassidy sharply criticizing his defensemen overall with the specific message clearly intended for McAvoy.
“We saw some poor defending, poor goaltending I think in Philly. [Against Pittsburgh] I thought it was more of the same to be honest with you,” said Cassidy. “Not so much on the goalie, they were good goals. But we get beat off the wall on the first one. The last one I can’t tell you what happened to be honest with you. It’s a rimmed puck [the] goalie needs to get out and stop. The D need to communicate.
“You need to make a play. You can’t turn the puck over there. There’s too much of that going on. Guys that have offensive ability have to start playing to their strength a little more on our back end, or we have to seriously consider what type of D corps do we want? We are supposed to be mobile, we are supposed to be able to move the puck, break pucks out and add to our offense. Right now that is a challenge for us.”
Given that it was an important game lost on McAvoy’s stick, it sure felt like that message was being sent to the youngster more than anybody else.
There are anticipated growing pains to be sure for a 22-year-old defenseman expected to spur offense and play in a shutdown role against the other team’s best players on a nightly basis, and it sure feels like we’re seeing them with McAvoy this season.
“For me, it’s just playing hockey. Every night I’m lucky and I’m happy I get to take a lot of pride in the defensive side of the game lining up against guys who are world class players. I really take pride in just shutting them down. [Chara] takes a lot of pride in that and he sets the precedent in how we approach those things,” said McAvoy. “Then it’s easy for me to follow his lead. Whatever the game presents is what I try and get [offensively]. I feel like I’m building my game right now. I’m trying to build it from the defensive zone out.
“Things just happen and you’ve just got to play and have fun. At times if I’m going through streaks where I’m not having much opportunity or chances, that’s when I look at it and say where I can start joining in more. But I feel like I’m getting these chances. Some of it is just shooting more, and some of it maybe is just bounces. It’s been kind of new to me where it’s a streak like this. I know that if I build my game from the defense out and that I’m a defenseman first and foremost. If I can do the best I can every night to keep the puck out of our net, hopefully when we get to the other side of the net I can start helping put it in theirs.”
Given the aging nature of Boston’s core group of players and the massive role that McAvoy is expected to play for this team moving forward, it’s no understatement to say they need much more out of their 22-year-old D-man if they are going to do anything this season. They need to him to be more creative, more assertive and more effective when the puck is on his stick and they need McAvoy to be a factor that opponents have to account for on a nightly basis.
While things like Norris Trophies and All-Star recognition are obviously already off the board for him this season, the good news is that McAvoy and the Bruins have 31 games left to find the youngster’s mojo before it really begins to matter once the playoffs get started.