PITTSBURGH — It would appear that patience is beginning to wear thin on the season-long performance of Charlie McAvoy.
Ahead of his third NHL season, the 22-year-old defenseman was picked by some to be a Norris Trophy winner. He was given a three-year bridge contract toward a much bigger deal, based on the expectation he’d quickly develop into a No. 1 defenseman.
But it’s been a fitful year of development for McAvoy. He’s still searching for his first goal of the season headed into next week’s NHL All-Star break, and he’s been a minus player for the month of January.
Things came to a bit of a head Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh. McAvoy was at the center of the Penguins' third period game-winning play that made a 4-3 comeback win. Evgeni Malkin neutralized a hesitating McAvoy with a big hit, stripped the puck away from before he could outlet it to Sean Kuraly or Zdeno Chara, and then fed to Bryan Rust in front for the game-winner.
McAvoy was quietly accountable following the game, and knew exactly where he’d gone wrong.
“I got it and I was trying to make a reverse play to [Kuraly]. There are good players in this league. They made a good play. I’ve got to be stronger on the puck,” said McAvoy. “I was trying to make a puck possession play. I’ll have to look at it and get better from it, but it obviously hurt us.
“It’s frustrating. From an overall game I was feeling good and liking my game, but then it’s tough to give up a play like that and feel good about it. I’ve got to be better for the team and for [Jaroslav] Halak.”
McAvoy was in the middle of another scoring play for the Penguins when Sidney Crosby made a highlight-reel, backhanded and between-the-legs dish to Teddy Blueger for a second period goal. McAvoy was a half-second late getting to the front of the net to stop the play. He wasn’t the only one playing poorly on Sunday; John Moore didn’t play too much after Crosby fended him off behind the Boston net to set up the Pens' first goal.
Cassidy called the plays “gifts”. He seemed to be challenging McAvoy in particular in his post-game comments.
“We get beat off the wall on the first wall and the [game-winner] I can’t tell you what happened to be honest with you," Cassidy said. "It’s a rimmed puck that the goalie needs to get out and stop and the D need to communicate. You need to make a play. You can’t turn the puck over there.
"There is too much of that going on. Guys that have offensive ability have to start playing to their strength a little bit more on the back end. Or we have to seriously consider what kind of D-corps do we want.
“We’re supposed to be mobile, we’re supposed to be able to move pucks, break pucks out and add to our offense. Right now, that’s a challenge for us.”
The good news is that McAvoy and the Bruins have just one more game, and then they will get 10 days to hit the reset button, thanks to the All-Star break. Perhaps that’s what McAvoy needs to get his game back on track, after a first half where he did some good things while learning his trade as a No. 1 D-man. He leads the Bruins in ice time (23:12 per game) and blocked shots, often getting matched up against the other team’s best offensive players.
But McAvoy has also very consistently played below his talent level. He's a gifted two-way defenseman capable of doing just about anything, and one who many believed was going to have a breakout NHL season. That hasn’t happened yet.
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