The road map is clear for Charlie McAvoy.
The Bruins’ 2016 first-round pick is on track to conclude his amateur career this spring at Boston University. If things go well for the Terriers, McAvoy’s final college game will be for an NCAA championship in Chicago on April 8. The right-shot defenseman will then sign an amateur tryout contract with Providence, where he will play in the AHL team’s final regular-season games and dress in the playoffs. This fall, McAvoy will return to Boston for his first NHL training camp, make the varsity roster, and launch his NHL career in 2017-18 at 19 years old.
McAvoy has plenty of company to follow, including fellow defenseman Brandon Carlo.
On April 1, 2016, after the end of his WHL career with Tri-City, Carlo made his pro debut in Providence’s 5-2 loss to Portland. The 19-year-old defenseman played in six more regular-season games, plus one more in the playoffs.
For today’s high-end defensive prospects, eight games of AHL play upon the conclusion of an amateur career is about the going rate for pre-NHL development.
The NHL has held a traditional way of thinking about defensemen. Everybody agrees that playing defense is harder than playing forward. As such, it usually takes defensemen longer to become trustworthy NHL players. The previously preferred route was for defensemen to learn and perhaps even master their craft in the AHL before becoming full-time NHL blue liners.
Present and past examples include Torey Krug and Johnny Boychuk, two top-four defensemen. Krug needed a full season of AHL development (63 games in 2012-13, plus seven in the playoffs) before he entered the NHL for good in 2013-14. It took Boychuk even longer. The ex-Bruin played five AHL seasons (Hershey, Lowell, Albany, Lake Erie, Providence) before he gained regular NHL clearance in 2009-10.
Today’s NHL, however, has accelerated defensive development to a more rapid pace. Of the top 10 rookie defensemen in average ice time, the leading five are first-year NHLers who played last season in the KHL (Nikita Zaitsev), junior (Carlo, Ivan Provorov), or NCAA (Zach Werenski, Troy Stecher). The remaining five (Esa Lindell, Michael Matheson, Derek Forbort, Anthony DeAngelo, Josh Morrissey) have spent parts of previous seasons in the AHL. Before this year, the 10 defensemen combined for 523 regular-season and playoff games of AHL experience, including 226 for the 24-year-old Forbort.
Carlo has become an untouchable for the Bruins not solely because of his performance or his projected future. Carlo has reached his current status because he’s averaging 20-plus minutes this year and for the next two seasons is at peanuts entry-level pay. For the Bruins, it’s critical to have dependable youngsters such as Carlo offsetting David Krejci’s $7.25 million average annual value. Were Carlo doing this on his second contract, his value would not be as sky-high.
Consider the landscape in 2011-12, the season before the 2012-13 lockout. That year, only three of the top five rookie defensemen in ice time jumped from the NCAA or the Swedish Elite League into the NHL: Justin Faulk, Jake Gardiner, and Adam Larsson. Before his rookie season, Faulk dressed for 13 AHL playoff games after leaving Minnesota-Duluth. Gardiner appeared in 10 games for the Marlies. Larsson was one of only two defensemen (Raphael Diaz was the other) among the top 10 to not play in the AHL the previous season. The top 10 combined for 725 regular-season and playoff AHL games prior to 2011-12.
Rewind to 2003-04, the year before the 2004-05 lockout, and the defensive development model is even more conservative. Paul Martin was the only rookie defenseman among the top five in average ice time to jump from amateur (University of Minnesota) to the NHL. The top 10 defensemen combined for 1,018 AHL regular-season and playoff games before 2003-04.
The point isn’t to declare one approach better than the other. For Brooks Orpik, who played in 79 games in 2003-04 and averaged 18:25 in ice time, two seasons of AHL play following three years at Boston College were a good foundation. Through 41 games this season, the 36-year-old has zero goals and nine assists while logging 17:31 per appearance. The physical defenseman has submitted a good NHL career for Washington and Pittsburgh, perhaps because of the base he built in the AHL.
But Orpik entered the league when there was no salary cap. It wasn’t Pittsburgh’s priority to develop minimum-wage players up top to offset big-ticket salaries. Last year, Pittsburgh made the playoffs partly because Olli Maatta was on his entry-level deal (along with Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, and Bryan Rust) to balance out Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel.
The ideal situation is for teams to get their players onto their NHL rosters for all three years of their entry-level contracts. It would not be good practice, for example, for the Bruins to sign McAvoy after this season and have him spend part of 2017-18 in Providence, burning some of his first year. If the Bruins envision that as a possible scenario, they would be better off leaving McAvoy at BU for his junior season. McAvoy would then initiate the first year of his contract in 2018-19.
Carlo had an excellent start to his rookie season. He’s slipped of late, not as careful with the puck or stout with his positioning. In previous eras, Carlo might have been assigned to the AHL, where he could take a deep breath, address his fundamentals, and regain his confidence. That won’t happen now. Today’s NHL demands on-the-job development.
The Hurricanes have three defensemen on entry-level contracts: Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce. Between them, they have 21 games of AHL experience. The message is clear. If you are a good young defenseman, there is little need to report to the AHL.
Little practice for backup goalies
This is not a good year to be a backup goalie. Anton Khudobin felt the sting of waivers on Jan. 4. He is not alone.
Other backups to be sent packing include Mike Condon, Ondrej Pavelec, Jaroslav Halak, Jonas Gustavsson, Curtis McElhinney, and Jhonas Enroth. Some of them were dismissed because of roster reasons. Condon was stuck behind Carey Price and Al Montoya. Pittsburgh claimed the Holliston native because Matt Murray broke his hand during the World Cup of Hockey. Once Murray healed, the Penguins traded Condon to Ottawa. The Senators required veteran help to replace Craig Anderson, who has appeared in only 19 games because of his wife’s cancer diagnosis.
Pavelec was an expensive veteran in the way of Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson, both of whom are younger, cheaper, and better. Halak was part of an unusual and unwieldy three-goalie rotation in Brooklyn alongside Thomas Greiss and Jean-Francois Berube.
But Khudobin (1-5-1, 3.06 goals-against average, .885 save percentage) is among the backups told to hit the bricks strictly because of flagging performance. That Khudobin has so much company underscores the importance of practice for No. 2 goalies and the shortage of such sessions available this season.
Because of schedule compression, coaches have regularly scrubbed practices. Claude Julien is among them. In December, the Bruins had 16 games. They had three back-to-back sets, all requiring travel. The league also had its three-day mandatory holiday break. This left 12 days available for practice. After cancellations and optional sessions, the Bruins had seven full-roster practices (injured players excepted). This would not give any backup enough time to stare down pucks.
The Bruins have been good about maximizing practice time during morning skates. But these sessions are not the same as off-day practices. Shooters are not ripping off their best stuff. Players are not engaging in net-front battles. As such, it’s just about impossible for backups to experience game-like situations.
In comparison, the AHL’s schedule provides better practice windows, especially for Eastern teams that don’t require airplane travel. They are playing three games each weekend, but they’re also practicing on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. This gives goalies such as Zane McIntyre a good mix of game and practice action. This balance is one reason McIntyre went 9-0-0 with a 1.65 GAA and a .947 save percentage in December, claiming AHL Goalie of the Month designation.
It’s a mystery why Edmonton classified Gustavsson as a dependable No. 2. Gustavsson passed neither the eye test nor the statistical standard as Tuukka Rask’s backup last season, going 11-9-1 with a 2.72 GAA and .908 save percentage. So it is not surprising that Gustavsson went 1-3-1 with a 3.10 GAA and .878 save percentage as Cam Talbot’s No. 2 before the Oilers said enough is enough and placed “The Monster” on waivers.
But Khudobin, Halak, Enroth, and McElhinney have stouter histories as reliable backups. That all of them were unable to stick on their respective varsities underscores the challenge of being a No. 2 behind a workhorse — a tough job regardless of compressed schedule. It’s easier for skaters to work on their games within limited practice segments. Goalies need help.
With that in mind, the window is not closed on Khudobin’s return. The veteran allowed just one goal during back-to-back starts against Springfield and Hartford last weekend. Up top, McIntyre is 0-3-1 with a 3.76 GAA and .863 save percentage. It’s possible that with a heavy workload in Providence, Khudobin can find his touch and return to NHL dependability.
Behind the line, forward thinking
Riley Nash made a very good play in the third period of the Bruins’ 4-0 win over Florida on Jan. 7. Nash hurtled in on the forecheck to pick off James Reimer’s clearing pass, allowing the Bruins to gain possession.
The right wing followed it up with an even better play.
After taking a return pass from Kevan Miller behind the net, Nash didn’t wait until he crossed the goal line to look for a scoring chance. Nash fired the puck on Reimer from behind the line. The shot surprised the Florida goalie. The puck glanced off Reimer and went into the net for the Bruins’ fourth goal.
“I like that play,” Nash said. “I think it’s a tough play for the goalie. He’s got to worry about the cross-crease. He’s got to worry about it bouncing off someone in front. I like to just get it there and throw it at his feet. It’s hard for them to see. Sometimes they go in.”
One night later, Leon Draisaitl turned the trick on Mike Condon. Draisaitl backhanded a quick swipe on net from behind the line. Condon had dropped into reverse FH, seemingly sealing the strong-side post. But Draisaitl’s backhander bumped off Condon’s left shoulder and caromed into the net, giving Edmonton a 3-2 lead over Ottawa.
Two things make shots from behind the line murder on goalies. First, it’s unpredictable. Goalies are preparing for something else — cross-crease pass, net-front fling, wraparound — when the puck arrives. Second, it’s hard to control the back of the legs, shoulders, and head.
For everything the NHL tracks, it would be fascinating to see the success rate of shots on goal from behind the line. The bet here is that such shooting percentages are higher than expected.
Oilers burn Puljujarvi’s first year
Jesse Puljujarvi, the fourth overall pick in 2016, has a bright future. The 18-year-old wing is already 6 feet 4 inches and 203 pounds. He was the MVP of the 2016 World Junior Championship, where he scored five goals and 12 assists in seven games for Finland. In his draft year, the teenager scored 28 points in 50 games for Karpat in Finland’s SM-Liiga. In hindsight, the Oilers should have left him in Finland for another season. On Monday, Edmonton assigned Puljujarvi to Bakersfield, their AHL affiliate, ending his 28-game NHL run. Puljujarvi scored one goal and seven assists for the Oilers while averaging 11:15 of ice time. He wasn’t ready for the NHL, which is fine. So far, only four players from the most recent draft have proven their varsity worth: Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Matthew Tkachuk, and Jakob Chychrun. But the problem with spending 28 games to make a read on Puljujarvi is burning the first year of his entry-level contract. Had the wing stayed in Finland, the clock would not have started on his contract. What makes Matthews, Laine, Tkachuk, and Chychrun critical pieces is how Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Arizona can count on three seasons of contributions at entry-level pay. The Oilers cannot say the same about Puljujarvi.
Blackhawks catch a break
Chicago general manager Stan Bowman was able to take a breath after Artemi Panarin was left off the All-Star Game roster, which was released on Tuesday. Had Panarin earned the nod, he would have cashed in a $212,500 Individual A bonus, putting more strain on Chicago’s perpetual cap crunch. At the time, Panarin had 17 goals and 24 assists for 41 points, second-most on the team behind Patrick Kane (12-32—44). But Panarin was bypassed for Jonathan Toews (7-13—20), one of four Blackhawks named to the Central Division roster along with Kane, Duncan Keith (1-28—29), and Corey Crawford (15-8-3, 2.33 GAA, .925 save percentage). None of the four is eligible for All-Star bonuses.
Paperwork never filed
According to the roster sheet Peter DeBoer filed prior to Sharks-Flames on Wednesday, Mirco Mueller would be one of his healthy scratches. The San Jose coach believed Paul Martin would be good to go following warm-ups. But when Martin was declared unfit to play, DeBoer and his staff tabbed Mueller to dress in the veteran’s place. The trouble was that the coaches forgot to place Mueller on the active roster sheet. At 6:36 of the first period, referees Jon McIsaac and Dan O’Halloran noticed Mueller was on the bench when he was still listed as a healthy scratch. The referees instructed Mueller to exit the game, leaving the Sharks with five defensemen for the rest of the night.
The Hurricanes have a keeper in Sebastian Aho. The 19-year-old, Carolina’s second-round pick in 2015, posted 10 goals and 13 assists through 41 games while averaging 16:06 of ice time. The winger is 5-11 and 172 pounds, but he has a Brendan Gallagher-type knack of being in the hard-hat areas at the right times . . . Sure looks like Hanover’s Colin White will be ready to leave Boston College after this season and report directly to Ottawa in 2017-18. White was a critical player on Team USA’s gold-medal team at the World Junior Championship . . . Florida and Toronto are chasing the Bruins and Senators for second and third place in the Atlantic Division. The team that should scare everybody, however, is Tampa Bay. This is the Lightning’s last push with their current core. After this season, Ben Bishop will be unrestricted, while Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat, Andrej Sustr, and Nikita Nesterov will reach restricted status. No way GM Steve Yzerman stands pat with all the offseason change that is coming . . . The Islanders are in a tough spot. Traditionally, last-place teams would shed expiring contracts for futures. But ex-Bruin Dennis Seidenberg is the only Islander who will be unrestricted at season’s end. Tough to improve significantly with so much existing term on the books . . . The Red Wings were scheduled to hold their annual smoke detector collection on Saturday at Joe Louis Arena. Rumor was that Petr Mrazek (9-11-4, 3.19 GAA, .893 save percentage) was going to keep one to hang in his net.
The Blue Jackets fell one game short of tying the NHL’s all-time win streak record of 17, set by the Penguins 24 years ago. The streaks were built in different ways — Pittsburgh riding its powerful, Mario Lemieux-led offense (three games during run with at least nine goals) and Columbus relying on its defense and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (eight games in streak allowing just one goal). Perhaps the Jackets’ season will end better than that of the 1992-93 Penguins, who set a franchise record with 56 wins but were bounced in the second round of the playoffs while pushing for a three-peat.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.