COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Bruins have gone to overtime in their last two games, against the Blue Jackets and the Kings. It is no coincidence that Charlie McAvoy has had the team’s highest workload both times.
In Monday’s 4-3 shootout loss in Columbus, the rookie logged 29:19 of ice time. Two nights earlier, McAvoy was on the ice for 29:47.
Overtime was meant for a racehorse like McAvoy.
Hockey is work for Charlie McAvoy. The 19-year-old defenseman is earning $925,000 this season instead of cracking books at Boston University, where he would have been a junior.
One reason the Bruins drafted McAvoy, however, is his outlook. As an amateur then and a professional now, McAvoy understands the pleasure of playing hockey, to say nothing of getting paid for it. He plays the game like it is just that: a game.
“Big, strong team that plays very physical,” McAvoy said of the Kings. “Playing against a team like that, they’re coming at you so hard every shift, there’s something about it that’s just really engaging and raises the compete level.
“Once you get to overtime, I kind of pride myself on the offensive side. If you get a chance there with so much free ice and so many other great players out there with you, to hop in and try to contribute that way, that’s just fun.
“Guys just enjoy three-on-three hockey. It’s just pure offense. It’s almost like shinny hockey in the backyard.”
On Saturday, McAvoy enjoyed playing against men like Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. The Blue Jackets brought even more thunder in the likes of Boone Jenner, Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky, and Josh Anderson — all big boys who finish their forechecks with smiles on their faces.
In both games, McAvoy had his number repeatedly called partly because he was very good, but also because he was having too much fun to be parked on the bench.
McAvoy played 2:58 in overtime against Los Angeles. He launched two Grade-A chances on Jonathan Quick. Either would have been a winner had the former UMass netminder not robbed McAvoy. The rookie played 1:59 of extra time against Columbus.
For general managers and coaches, players like McAvoy are artwork. He was granted the good fortune of claiming all the shiny pieces off the defenseman factory line: thickness, V8 engine, smooth footwork, soft hands, sharp mind.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney, with assistance from his scouting staff, was thrilled with the opportunity to draft McAvoy 14th overall in 2016. Coach Bruce Cassidy was equally delighted to throw McAvoy into the deep end against Ottawa in last year’s playoffs.
If Cassidy could sketch up a perfect defenseman, he would look like Brent Burns: a big man who can defend, skate, and go on the attack. McAvoy is 5 inches shorter and 22 pounds lighter than Burns. But McAvoy shares some of Burns’s strengths in that he can be both a Ford F-150 and a Porsche 911. McAvoy may not be surly, but he is willing to dump an opponent, then go flying the other way.
“What you would like, ideally, is if you could have a 6-foot-5 guy that’s mean and skates and contributes offensively, have that mix,” Cassidy said. “I think we’re seeing some of that out of Charlie. We’d like to get more out of that from Brandon Carlo.”
McAvoy also makes his coach’s job so much easier because of his joy for the game. When McAvoy plays like there is nowhere else he wants to be, Cassidy and assistant Kevin Dean, who manages the defense, have no choice but to keep tapping No. 73 for the next shift.
When that happens, McAvoy does not say no.
“You want to get trust from your coaches to know they can put you out there whenever they need and you’re going to get the job done,” McAvoy said. “That’s something I’ve been trying to do — trying to be responsible, trying to be reliable every time I go out there.”
In retrospect, it is startling to consider the quality of McAvoy’s NHL introduction. He was electric against the Senators in the playoffs from start to finish. Had the Bruins not recalled McAvoy from Providence, their six-match series against Ottawa would have been two games shorter.
So perhaps inflated expectations had something to do with McAvoy’s seemingly sluggish start this season. For the first few games, he turned down shooting opportunities. He took defensive-zone penalties when he fell a step behind opponents. He and his blue line mates did not hold their ground well in net-front coverage. But McAvoy’s game spiked against the Kings. Down low, he engaged with the big boys. He never hesitated, especially when he saw offensive opportunities.
“Maybe a little more assertive joining the rush,” Cassidy said. “Specifically in overtime, he had two really good looks. Strong on pucks down low. There were some big men battling him in LA. He came out of it on top more than once. All good signs for Charlie McAvoy.”
McAvoy is averaging 22:37 of ice time per game, most of any rookie. Former BU teammate Clayton Keller is second, logging 19:51 per appearance for Arizona. The ex-Terriers will be battling each other all year to win the Calder Trophy. That kind of challenge makes McAvoy smile. He is happy at the rink.