There’s a problem with setting expectations too high, and I can’t tell if that’s what’s happening with Charlie McAvoy.
It’s been a whirlwind three weeks for the Boston Bruins’ new No. 2 defenseman, who’s only 19 and was only drafted this past summer and played his first NHL game on the road in the playoffs just Wednesday night.
His Boston University Terriers lost 3-2 in overtime on March 25. He signed an amateur tryout contract with the Providence Bruins shortly thereafter, and played his first game as a pro on April 1. He played three more after that over the course of a week. The plan was to have him just eat a ton of minutes in the AHL for the Baby Bruins’ playoff run, however long it lasted, then sign to an entry-level NHL deal this summer. Made a lot of sense.
But then Torey Krug got hurt. Then Brandon Carlo did the same. And suddenly, the Bruins were out of options. The patient approach wasn’t going to cut it any more. So McAvoy was up with the big club, signing an entry-level contract, burning a year of it, and about to slot into the lineup, which he did in Game 1 against Ottawa.
(Burning the year on the ELC was a hot topic in Boston, and McAvoy’s relative value-added over a series or two probably doesn’t exceed that of, say, Matt Grzelcyk or even Tommy Cross by as much as you might think. But “desperate times” and all that.)
He got a ton of minutes — more than 24, second on the Bruins only behind reliable old Zdeno Chara — but a good chunk of them were spent playing behind the Bergeron/Marchand/Pastrnak line, which is going to make most players look good. Then again, his most common pairing partner was Kevan Miller (though he spent some time with Chara late, as the Bruins pushed for a goal), so maybe that just all evens out.
Point being: Bruce Cassidy largely put McAvoy in a position to succeed, and he largely succeeded as a result. Despite it being his first NHL game, the young defender got top-unit power play minutes (4:13 on the man advantage), which is good because his top quality is his ability to see the ice and distribute the puck, but actually started a surprising number of shifts in his own end.
A lot of them were early on as Ottawa pressed the attack and held the Bruins largely out of the attacking zone — the Sens’ tweet about holding the Bruins without a shot will be remembered for a while — and when you’re starting in your own zone with Miller as your battery mate, having Bergeron and Co. out there only gets you so far.
McAvoy wasn’t thrown into the deep end, necessarily, but he didn’t get a soft runout in his NHL debut. Actually, one can make a reasonable argument that he was thrown into the deep end with swimmies on both arms: Cassidy wasn’t going to let him drown, but he wanted to see what the kid could do.
And he was fine. Objectively.
Relative to what you might expect from a 19-year-old playing his first game on the road, he was very good. After the game, he talked a little bit about his one nervous-kid gaffe — a dump-in attempt that hit Riley Nash in the ass and came back out of the zone — but after that, he was cruising. Relative to what you’d expect, anyway.
A lot of the praise he earned in the immediate wake of the game, however, was undue. In the above-linked look at McAvoy’s first game, Cassidy had this to say:
“I thought he was terrific. Nineteen-year-old kid, comes in, never played a game in the National Hockey League. Had composure, saw the ice, defended well. Got his indoctrination over early when he tried to dump one in, hit our guy, and it came back out. I thought he was pretty good. Stayed out of trouble. And we needed it. We needed it. We were having trouble breaking pucks out. That’s an element of his game he does well. We needed it tonight. Then losing Colin Miller sort of magnifies the situation. If he struggled, we would have been in trouble. It was a nice boost for us.”
I think that’s a reasonable assessment. McAvoy does a lot of things well, carrying the puck, keeping it in the attacking zone, not making mistakes. He was a steal when he fell to the Bruins at No. 14 this past June and from everything I’ve seen — and I probably saw him play 40-plus times in college, so I understand his game better than most — he looks to me like a future No. 1 defenseman. And I frankly don’t think that “future” point is too far down the road here. He’s big, he hits hard, he’s good defensively, he stymies the rush and fishes out dump-ins. Obviously, he has quality offensive tools.
Dom Luszczyszyn of The Hockey News and other sites, developed a stat I love called “game score,” which effectively tells you how a guy did in any given game. It’s not hard-and-fast and you have to take some other stuff into account (like quality of teammate). But honestly, he didn’t do much individually: McAvoy had no points, only attempted four shots. All but one of them was blocked and it still didn’t end up on net. Did he create looks? Sure. But according to game score, McAvoy ranked fourth on the Bruins’ D in terms of impact on the game. That sounds about right to me, having watched it. And it sounds really good for a 19-year-old who was in college three weeks ago.
He didn’t play like a 19-year-old debutant. There weren’t any jitters apart from one failed dump-in. But because he didn’t turn the puck over and he was on the ice for the big game-winner (his contribution was to keep it in among a mass of bodies at the blue line and dump it cross-corner; he’d have gotten a tertiary assist if one existed), and he ate a ton of minutes, the praise has been over the top.
In the Globe piece above, Fluto Shinzawa compared him to P.K. Subban and Drew Doughty. The Subban comparison described both as the former Norris winner and McAvoy, “smooth, energetic, and boisterous right-shot defensem[e]n who can touch every part of the game.” Which is true. The Doughty comparison called him, “all-around, dynamic, and physical right-shot defenseman,” and was cribbed from Providence coach Kevin Dean. It’s also true.
Yesterday afternoon, Bob McKenzie compared McAvoy to Doughty as well. These are smart hockey people projecting based on a player they’ve seen a handful of times. And McAvoy absolutely has a Doughty/Subban kind of a ceiling. He really is that good.
But I keep coming back to that thing Cassidy said about “if he struggled, we would have been in trouble.” He’s a kid. Not only is he just 19, but he only turned 19 in December. He’s going to struggle. The odds that he struggles in this series are actually fairly high.
And if, after Game 1, you start comparing him to Norris trophy winners, you’re probably setting the bar too high. Remember, it was only a few years ago that Dougie Hamilton, long since traded to Calgary, was the future No. 1 defenseman for this franchise, the heir apparent to Zdeno Chara. But because he wasn’t immediately among a handful of the best defensemen in the league, people turned on him a little bit in this dumbass town.
(And here we remember: Also Kessel. Also Seguin)
Now, not so long after, Hamilton is a borderline Norris finalist — I’d have him in my top five or six; he was that good this season — and the Bruins spent the past few years saying, “Boy it’d be nice if we had a young No. 1 defenseman.” So they fall kinda ass-backwards into McAvoy, who’s a great young player and will be in this league forever.
But after less than a month as a pro, coaches and media are potentially over-inflating the tires on another stud blue liner. Can McAvoy live up to that hype? I can absolutely see a future where that happens, for sure. He’s awesome.
If, in a year or two, he perhaps doesn’t? That won’t be his fault. People sure will act like it, though.
All I’m saying is: McAvoy had a slight positive impact in big minutes in his first NHL game ever. That’s really good, given the situation. But maybe let’s hold off on the trophy engraving and Hall of Fame plaque orders for now.
It’s one game. And he was fine.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.
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