It’s kind of hard to believe that’s been the case for the Bruins. Following Chara’s controversial exit and Krug’s departure without much an effort to retain him, the Bruins defense has gotten through the first part of the season without missing much of a beat.
There’s plenty of positives to highlight, such as Jeremy Lauzon‘s emergence and Kevan Miller hasn’t been injured yet and Connor Clifton‘s positive developments, but perhaps the biggest positive is the most obvious one.
Charlie McAvoy is playing some of the best hockey of his life.
The B’s number one defenseman has been groomed for that role since moment one, and he’s been on the ice for all of the toughest matchups alongside Chara the past two seasons.
There was little doubt he would take ownership of the top role on his own, but it’s still notable he’s done it with flying colors, all while working with a defense partner with less than 50 games under his belt.
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“I think Charlie was so used to (Chara),” head coach Bruce Cassidy told reporters earlier this season. “He liked to stay on his own side so it was a pretty easy read for Charlie but sometimes now we’re asking our D to close a little quicker. So they’ll both be below the goal line or they crowd into the same corner periodically. And that’s where they’ll have to figure things out and talk. That’ll take some time. But so far so good. They’re both young guys, they’re both passionate about defending, so I think they’re going to be fine in the long run.”
Maybe there was a little doubt about his offensive game when it took until Feb. 5 for him to score last season. All his metrics all over the ice, though, told the story of an elite defender and it was just a matter of time.
This time around, though, there was no waiting around for that offensive element to make itself abundantly obvious.
Lots of elements of McAvoy’s game have changed; he’s getting more power play time with Krug gone, he has more freedom to play a more aggressive style with Lauzon, and perhaps most importantly, he’s just grown into this role.
He’s carried Lauzon’s game as well; Lauzon’s expected goals for percentage of 61.52 with McAvoy dips to 39.20 without him. Their 64.06 shots for percentage dips to 40 with just Lauzon, per Natural Hat Trick.
“The more we practice together, the more we play together, we feel the chemistry has been better,” Lauzon told reporters last week. “Obviously Charlie is a really good player and I’m trying to read off him and make good plays for him to attack offensively.”
Cale Makar has been insane, but Charlie McAvoy needs to be talked about more…. pic.twitter.com/CDoYUYby2s
— Griffin Foster (@GriffinFoster22) February 6, 2021
McAvoy is playing over 19 minutes per game of five-on-five and also more than two minutes on the power play and penalty kill. Those are all big asks for a still 23-year-old, even though his experience mirrors that of a seasoned vet. His 24:24 minutes per game rank 15th in the entire league, ahead of players like Cale Makar and Shea Weber.
Those asks, especially on the penalty kill, aren’t hurting his production, and in fact he’s thriving with them; he has 10 points in 11 games to open the season, all while only allowing 70 shots against when he’s on the ice five-on-five.
McAvoy played just 1:21 on average on the power play last season, and it makes sense with Krug’s departure he’s seen a significant spike there, even after averaging a smooth 20 minutes of ice time a year ago.
It hasn’t seemed to wear him down yet, even with a condensed schedule — it’s still early and the schedule remains a mess, so, to be determined how long that lasts — and the points just keep coming.
On Feb. 1, he added an assist on a David Pastrnak goal for his 100th career NHL point. It’s hard to believe he hasn’t been a part of the Bruins shuffle for all that long. He’s still a young player and only getting better.
If Chuck doesn't win the Norris… pic.twitter.com/fpRGBiziUw
— Shawn Ferris (@shawnferris98) January 31, 2021
Part of his offensive surge is how many offensive zone starts he’s gotten, but in the B’s last game on Feb. 5, he had just 29% in the offensive end and still had a 12-3 shots advantage when he was on the ice; his game has just developed to the point he’s pushing the offensive play no matter where or when he’s out there.
McAvoy has taken charge of the Bruins top pairing for a couple of seasons now, and no Chara means he’s totally in charge. He’s taken on the challenge and not only succeeded, but continued to grow into one of the best defensemen in the entire league, on every part of the ice.
“He can be a puck-mover and defends well against bigger bodies and against fast bodies,” said Cassidy. “He can pitch in on the power play and part of the penalty kill. Overtime, three-on-three, he covers a lot of ice and four-on-four can cover the ice necessary. You know what, he’s a hockey player and he’s a smart hockey player.”