This is a crucial window of development for Charlie McAvoy
Charlie McAvoy started his professional hockey career with an unusual first step.
On Thursday at Providence’s Dunkin’ Donuts Center, McAvoy wore a No. 43 jersey that did not include his name on its back. The 19-year-old lined up next to players, some of whom he had just met, and posed for the P-Bruins’ team picture before his first practice.
The photograph may someday prove that McAvoy’s rocket-ship NHL development included a brief trip south to Providence.
“He’s clearly a special player,” Providence coach Kevin Dean said. “I haven’t seen a lot of him. But he strikes me as the kind of kid that, a game or two in, he can start helping us quickly. If that’s the case, you don’t have to worry about the room. Because the room will be happy to have him integrated and helping us. It’s when you push guys aside that have been here all year and the new guy coming in isn’t up to speed, that’s a different story. But I expect Charlie to get up to speed. From every measure I’ve heard, he’s pretty good.”
The organization’s plan was to have McAvoy make his pro debut on Saturday against Springfield, likely to be paired with veteran Tommy Cross. Whether McAvoy accumulates many games in Providence after that remains to be seen. The robust right-shot defenseman, who draws comparisons to reigning Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty, is likely to use Providence as a short-term launchpad to propel him back up 95 North.
The Bruins’ belief is that once McAvoy acclimates to pro hockey, he will be ready to help the varsity, perhaps even as early as the coming days. The question is whether McAvoy’s presence in Boston would help to the extent that the Bruins would be OK with burning the first season of his three-year, entry-level contract. It would leave the Bruins with two, rather than three, full seasons in 2017-18 and 2018-19 of low-wage employment, so to speak, even if a $925,000 base salary plus performance bonuses add up to a generous payday.
“There’s a balancing act there,” said general manager Don Sweeney. “I don’t think you’d ultimately know until we see him play in the NHL and see where his readiness is. This gives us an opportunity for him, first and foremost, to have a chance to play in some professional games, which is another level for him. That’s sort of an eye-opener there. But we’re excited about his talent, his skill set, and his love of the game.”
While his stay in Providence may be short, McAvoy is fulfilling a segment that has become critical. Say what you want about amateur seasons, World Junior Championship experience, and development camps, all of which McAvoy has excelled in prior to his most recent arrival. But teams are placing more emphasis than ever before on the professional immersion that comes with an amateur tryout agreement such as the one McAvoy has signed. The current window, where AHL teams are concluding their regular seasons and entering the playoffs, has become a crucial stage for high-end prospects.
They are no longer playing with and against boys, stumbling into practice after a morning of classes, or eating late-night pizza while plowing through homework. For the baby-faced McAvoy, he now resides in a dressing room that includes men with children and mortgages. McAvoy can count on an NHL salary for the next decade or longer. Some of his teammates and opponents do not have such security in their future. They are hungry for every paycheck. Desperation shows in their play.
“In pro, this is your career,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, who spent the last eight seasons in Providence. “This is what you’re paid to do.”
Brandon Carlo is an ideal example. Last year, upon the conclusion of his junior career, Carlo reported to Providence, where he made his pro debut on April 1. It was the first of eight AHL games, including one postseason appearance, that Carlo logged. He will never play in another.
Cassidy recalled that Carlo landed with good defending skills. The teenager applied his positioning, stick skills, and skating to shut down opponents’ approaches. Where Carlo required monitoring was when the puck got behind him. Professional forecheckers arrive with more fury than those in the WHL. So Cassidy and Dean instructed Carlo to turn for the puck more rapidly and pursue it with greater purpose to get it going the other way.
The work paid off. Because Carlo learned from his eight-game AHL experience, the 20-year-old made the big team out of camp. He has been one of the better rookies in the league.
“It’s unique to the sport in that when you first turn pro, you get introduced to that high level and you have to learn on the fly,” Sweeney said. “The structure, understanding the voices that you’re hearing, the reads and reacts you’re being taught at the pro level are all very, very important. It’s hard to turn the page when you’ve done it for two, three, four years in the same comfort zone. You have to understand you have to flip that switch. For me, it’s great on-the-job training. I think Brandon’s the best example so far. He’s been able to jump into our lineup, which is a testament to him, but also the work that was done last year to support those efforts.”
The benefit is three full NHL seasons at entry-level pay, which is immeasurable for the Bruins. The same thing is happening in Columbus with Zach Werenski, Carlo’s former international partner. After leaving the University of Michigan following his sophomore season, Werenski appeared in 24 AHL games and won the Calder Cup. The left-shot defenseman has been one of the NHL’s best rookies this season. Other recent examples of players launching NHL careers after late-season AHL plunges include Robby Fabbri, Colton Parayko, Justin Faulk, and Morgan Rielly.
Everything is being accelerated. Leaving after two years of college play (others include Colin White, Brock Boeser, Tage Thompson) is the new three-and-done. Cramming via an ATO is the new half-season of AHL development. It’s not just because today’s young players are better. It’s because teams drool over maximizing entry-level contracts and are willing to provide on-the-job NHL training.
“The league has implemented younger players,” Sweeney said. “I think that’s been a movement. You see younger players that have the ability to make an impact. [David] Pastrnak’s a great example of a younger player making an impact on our lineup.”
It is now up to Dean and assistant coach Jay Leach, who is in charge of Providence’s defensemen, to maximize McAvoy’s abbreviated AHL apprenticeship. Before practice on Thursday, McAvoy huddled with former Boston University partner Matt Grzelcyk and ex-Boston College forward Ryan Fitzgerald. Naturally, he was nervous and gravitated toward familiar faces. McAvoy will experience a similar break-in period on the ice, where he might play it safe and defer to his teammates. Dean’s mandate is to get McAvoy up to speed rapidly.
“We want him to understand that he can make a difference quickly,” Dean said. “For him to be the type of player everyone wants him to be, he’s going to need to make plays and assert himself in different situations, whether it’s defensively, offensively, physically, whatever it is. That might not happen in the first game or two. But if he’s here a few games, I would expect him at some point to start chipping in offensively in terms of getting looks, getting chances, getting up ice. Defensively, getting comfortable killing plays and physically eliminating players. I would hope that sooner than later, he’ll understand that, ‘Yeah, I can keep up and I can make a difference.’ When a player has the mind-set that he can make a difference, that’s when he grows.”
Cassidy chooses his words wisely
Bruce Cassidy regularly refers to his desire for his team to be on time for a game. It is Cassidy’s way to say that he emphasizes a good start. Sometimes, it doesn’t go as planned.
On March 23, the Bruins did not play well in the first period against the Lightning. Neither team scored in the opening 20 minutes. The Bruins placed only nine pucks on Peter Budaj. In retrospect, the sleepy start was one reason the Bruins lost, 6-3. Cassidy did not blame his players for their poor play in the first.
“It’s my job as head coach to prepare the team to play,” Cassidy said after the loss. “We weren’t ready at the puck drop. So I’ll be accountable for that part of it.”
Cassidy believes the start is under his control. It is not through raising his voice or calling out players during his pregame speech.
Instead, Cassidy considers one component as his most important resource: clarity of message. Cassidy thinks players are better off being thoroughly reinforced before each game to keep his points of emphasis fresh in their minds when they roll over the boards. In retrospect, against Tampa Bay, Cassidy believed he didn’t instruct his players on what to execute in the first 10 minutes with enough specificity.
Two nights later, when Nashville visited TD Garden, Cassidy made sure to deliver more concise points to his players before the game. The message worked. Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci slipped pucks past Pekka Rinne to give the Bruins a 2-0 first-period lead. They outshot the Predators, 13-6, in the first 20 minutes of a 4-1 win.
“It was more about, ‘We’re going to play behind their D. They played last night. Let’s forecheck, forecheck,’ ” Cassidy said. “ ‘Puck management. Here’s how we’re going to get through their neutral zone.’ It was a little more specific from Point A to Point B. Maybe the players grabbed on to that a little more than they did against Tampa.”
Report directly to the NHL
Clayton Keller did not do very much in his NHL debut for the Coyotes. On Monday, two days after concluding his first and only season of college hockey at BU, Keller didn’t attempt a single shot in 14:09 of ice time while skating alongside Alexander Burmistrov and Christian Fischer. Arizona lost to St. Louis, 4-1.
But because of Arizona’s down-and-out status, Keller had the opportunity to advance right from BU to the NHL, bypassing the step that Charlie McAvoy is currently experiencing. Unlike the Bruins, the Coyotes are not fighting for postseason qualification.
“Every situation’s different,” McAvoy said. “That’s something a lot of people have told me and that I’ve embraced. Organizationally, they had the opportunity to bring him up and give him games right away. I’m so happy for him. He’s a great kid. Phenomenal player. It’s exciting to see him up there. I wish him the best, a ton of success, and a long career that I’m sure he’ll have. But for myself, I’m here in Providence and I’m very excited to be here. My immediate goal right now is to learn how to be a pro. I’m in an environment here that’s going to help me do that. I’m very thankful for that.”
While he didn’t land on the scoresheet, Keller will remember his debut for a different reason. His first NHL game took place in his hometown. Keller was in Arizona’s starting lineup, across from offensive dynamo Vladimir Tarasenko. Keller is part of an impressive cluster of St. Louis-area players, including Matthew Tkachuk, Luke Kunin, Logan Brown, Trent Frederic, and Joseph Woll. Tkachuk got a head start on his buddies by making the NHL debut this season instead of returning to London, his junior team. Tkachuk has been a fixture alongside Michael Frolik and Mikael Backlund on Calgary’s best all-around line.
But Keller could have the biggest offensive impact of the group. The skilled wing scored 21 goals and 24 assists in 31 games this season for BU. Under Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, Keller will also learn how to play without the puck.
Expansion lists to be available
Some GMs expressed reservations about disclosing their expansion lists. But contrary to their wishes, the NHL declared on Wednesday that every team will be required to release the players they protect and expose ahead of the Vegas Golden Knights’ shopping spree, which will take place on June 20. In turn, Vegas’s list of selected players will be announced on June 21. Odds are good that the Bruins’ protected list will follow the 7 forwards, 3 defensemen, 1 goalie format. If so, the Bruins would inform Vegas that Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Backes, David Krejci, David Pastrnak, Ryan Spooner, Riley Nash, Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, Colin Miller, and Tuukka Rask will be off limits.
Disappointment in Florida
It did not help the Panthers that Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Nick Bjugstad were among the players who missed big chunks of time this season because of injuries. Still, injuries do not excuse a collective step back for a team that looked like it was going to sprint the other way. Aaron Ekblad was among the bigger disappointments, losing some of the blue-line presence and consistency that he showed in his first two NHL seasons. Ekblad was not done any favors by his coach, however, who acknowledged rushing the defenseman back from a concussion. Tom Rowe, who doubles as the GM, is considered an interim coach. The Panthers will be on the hunt for a permanent replacement behind the bench.
Quickening the pace
When it comes to game flow, one area that seems easy to target is post-icing play. Coaches encourage their players to try every trick in the book — feign confusion over who was on the ice, skate slowly to the other end, fidget with their equipment — to gain a few additional seconds to catch their breath. As soon as the linesmen are ready to drop the puck, they should do so, regardless of whether the icing team is set. Uncontested faceoffs and subsequent scoring chances would get every coach’s attention.
Tyson Jost became another member of the one-and-done club, saying goodbye to North Dakota after his freshman season and signing with Colorado. Jost, the 10th pick in 2016, scored 16 goals and 19 assists in 33 games this season . . . Old friend Shawn Thornton did not care for Alexei Emelin’s sideswipe of Derek MacKenzie on Thursday. The ex-Bruin grabbed Emelin, took him down, and let him know what he thought of his hit. “I think he’s what’s wrong with the league these days,” Thornton told La Presse. “I think there’s no accountability anymore. You can run around and take head shots at our captain and just turtle, and the refs save your life. I’m getting out at the right time because I liked the game when you had to be a man and look at yourself in the mirror.” Thornton’s truth-telling might hurt more than his uppercuts . . . Warm-ups are sacred, even between two teams such as the Canadiens and Stars. Montreal is pushing for a top seed. Dallas will not make the playoffs. But both organizations allowed brothers Jamie and Jordie Benn, once teammates and roommates and now wearing different jerseys, to pose for a picture during warm-ups. That will be a lifetime keepsake.
The future of the Maple Leafs is in good hands with the rookie trio of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner, all of whom are 20 or younger. They also each have more than 50 points, making them just the fourth such rookie trio on one team in NHL history. The other three teams all made the playoffs, and the Leafs are hoping to follow suit.