BOSTON – It took more than half the season given some of the obstacles that faced him in the season’s first half, but second year D-man Charlie McAvoy is starting to look like the player Boston expected him to be to start this year.
That is welcome news for a Bruins team that’s seeing 41-year-old captain Zdeno Chara beginning to look his age and other defensemen like Torey Krug, Brandon Carlo and Matt Grzelcyk understandably battling their own limitations on the ice. This weekend McAvoy showed his offensive talents in Saturday’s high-scoring win over the Los Angeles Kings and then got a little physical and defensive in Sunday’s 2-1 overtime win over the Colorado Avalanche.
It showed in a small spurt exactly what the 21-year-old McAvoy is capable of and also signaled that he’s finally starting to find his full game after injuries seriously messed with the first half of his season.
“He’s missed some time with different injuries. Maybe he’s starting to feel like now he’s into form, right? It’s not that easy in this league to miss five weeks or four weeks or whatever the case was each time and then all of a sudden get back and revved up to full speed. The expectations are high for Charlie. He’s had a good start here,” said Bruce Cassidy. “Part of that we try to temper with him without talking him down and not reaching his potential, but he has to understand it’s a tough league and play the game in front of him.
“I think he’s starting to now play that, and then when the opportunities are there, he looks like to me that he’s taking advantage of the situation. He’s not forcing anything, so that’s a sign that a guy’s in a zone when you have the puck a lot, you’re making plays, yet you’re not forcing stuff and seem to be making a lot of the right decisions. He’s in a groove right now.”
Saturday it was cutting backdoor to score the team’s first goal and then setting up a rebound for one of Boston’s goals later on during their third period outburst against the Kings. On Sunday it was obliterating Matt Nieto with a bone-rattling hit in the first period of a sleepy Sunday matinee against the Avalanche, and that kind of set the tone for a grittier, tougher game from the Bruins.
Perhaps just as importantly McAvoy has taken the team lead in time on ice with 21:46 per game and is playing like a No. 1 defenseman-in-the-making for the Black and Gold. He’s playing in all situations, playing against top lines and playing without hesitation, without the mental mistakes that plagued him over the last few months and he's playing freely and easily like he did in his NHL debut during the Stanley Cup playoffs a couple of years ago.
The only question is whether he can be consistent with this level of play in the final few months of the season, and how much the less-than-stellar first half could cost him at the bargaining table when his second contract comes up this summer. He’s going to need to be as good as he was this weekend for the rest of the season if he hopes to even get a sniff of something in the neighborhood of Aaron Ekblad (eight years at $7.5 million per season), and even then it may not be reasonable.
That’s a story for a different day, though. For this weekend he once again looked like a young Drew Doughty while appropriately playing against the older one on Saturday, and then looked like everything the Bruins want him to be on Sunday.
“I think over these last couple of games, I was kind of alluding to this yesterday, the production maybe might not be there, but I’ll take playing consistent hockey. [It’s about] being relied on and being trusted by the coaches and the team,” said McAvoy. “I’ll take that any day, and I feel like I’ve been playing a consistent brand of hockey and trying to just continue that. That’s my goal every single game: to be relied on, to be solid, to try to play mistake-free hockey. Obviously that’s not [always] possible, but [it it’s about] doing my best.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. I try and just live in the moment and day by day, but I mean, down the road, to mean to this team what [Zdeno] Chara’s meant to this team is, I don’t know if I’ll ever get to that, but that’s a goal of mine. [I want] to be as consistent as he is. One of the best lines in the league [in Colorado], so you know he is going to bring it, and I knew he was. He was going to play one of his best games against them; he loves to shut guys down. He loves that, and I kind of feed off that. I take as much pride in it as him.”
The Bruins are very clearly trying to get younger and more mobile on their back end, and that’s coming along with McAvoy and Grzelcyk at the NHL level and Urho Vaakanainen pushing his way to the league while skating in Providence. But it’s still all about having that dominant No. 1 guy on the back for the teams that want to actually win the Stanley Cup, and McAvoy has to develop into that top D-man if the Bruins are going to have one moving forward.
This weekend was a pretty good, albeit small piece of evidence that McAvoy is finally back on track after a season full of obstacles, and that could end up being a massive development for this Bruins team coming down the stretch.
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