Sunday afternoon was Charlie in full, or at least Charlie a touch more complete than we’ve seen. It has taken most of the 2018-19 season, but the Bruins in their matinee against the Avalanche watched Charlie McAvoy, their franchise defenseman heir apparent, add a significant growth ring to his game.
Now in his second full NHL season, the 21-year-old McAvoy hit and hit with some conviction, including a healthy smack on Matt Nieto, a fellow former Boston University Terrier, just seconds before John Moore drove home the 1-1 equalizer early in the second period.
It was one of three hits McAvoy registered across the afternoon, and it was undeniably interwoven with the assist that he picked up on Moore’s goal. Not quite a Gordie Howe hat trick — a goal, assist, and a fight — but McAvoy’s stamp was on the game with his hit-and-helper combination.
“It’s something that I possess, that I like to do,” said McAvoy, moments after Brad Marchand’s strike delivered the Bruins their 2-1 overtime win. “I like to be physical when I can, within the rules. It was nice to get a couple of hits. I don’t want to say it led to the goal, but it was nice to get rewarded at the end of that shift.”
What is it that McAvoy can’t do? The list is so short as to be virtually nonexistent. He has the speed, stick skill, vision, nerve, and game sense/anticipation to be the next franchise defenseman on Causeway Street, expected to inherit the role that Zdeno Chara has held here since arriving in the fall of forever ago (2006).
“The expectations are high for Charlie,” noted coach Bruce Cassidy. “He’s had a good start here, so part of that we try to temper with him without, you know, talking him down — not reaching his potential. But he has to understand it is a tough league and he has to play the game in front of him. I think he’s starting to play that way and when the opportunities are there, it looks to me like he’s taking advantage of the situation.”
Let’s be clear, McAvoy is not Chara, nor will he ever play into the role or physically dominating standard that the 6-foot-9-inch Trencin Tower of Power fulfilled here for a decade-plus. But Chara will be 42 next month, his runway losing yardage, and McAvoy, with a broader NHL-2019 tool kit, is the guy pegged to define Boston’s defense when the calendar rolls into the 2020-somethings.
He looked ready for it Sunday. Postgame, with some humility, he sounded ready to seize the role.
“I mean, that’s the goal of mine,” he said, asked specifically if he could move into the No. 1 franchise defenseman role. “I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. I try to just live in the moment — day by day. But I mean, down the road, to mean to this team what Chara’s meant to this team . . . ”
It was here, in mid-sentence, where McAvoy took a deep breath to consider his words.
“I mean, I don’t know if I’ll ever get to that, but that’s a goal of mine: to be as consistent as he is. A game like today, against those guys [Avalanche first-liners Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen] . . . aside from our line, which we think is the best . . . they have been statistically one of the best in the league. So you know [Chara] is going to bring it. He was going to play one of his best games against them. He loves to shut guys down. And I kind of feed off that. I take as much pride in it as him, and we were able to feed off each other today.”
Other than MacKinnon’s goal for the 1-0 lead, a dazzling flat-angle roof shot as a power play expired, the Bruins gave up nothing. Jaroslav Halak (35 saves) played a large part in that, turning in his best game in more than a month.
McAvoy, hindered by concussion issues and a foot infection this season, now has points (1-2—3) in consecutive games. In part because of the injuries, he has only done that once before this season, back when the season was October fresh.
“It’s a sign that a guy is in a zone,” said Cassidy, assessing where McAvoy’s game is at the moment. “When you have the puck a lot, you’re making plays and yet you’re not forcing stuff. He seems to be making a lot of right decisions, and he’s in a groove right now.”
Hub hockey fans have been spoiled with big names on the back line, dating back to Eddie Shore. The greatest of them all, Bobby Orr, revitalized the franchise in the ’60s. Then came Brad Park, and Ray Bourque and ultimately Chara. All different styles and impacts, but decades of elite production often the envy of the league.
McAvoy could be next, albeit with at least a couple of hundred more games and maybe 50,000 more plays for anyone to make the full assessment.
“He can play against anybody,” said Cassidy, ticking off McAvoy’s many assets. “Plays on the power play. Plays on the penalty kill. So a little more modern-day type of player. He does a little bit of everything. If you look at the Drew Doughtys, the [Roman] Josis, the [P.K.] Subbans . . . whoever you are going to put in those categories . . . we hope that he is in that category. But again . . . we want to temper that, so that when Charlie has the usual hiccups [of a 21-year-old], we don’t get down on him.”
The broader picture, noted Cassidy, includes Brandon Carlo in a shutdown role and, ideally, first-round pick Urho Vaakanainen taking a significant role.
“So you’ve got three mobile young defenders, and [Matt Grzelcyk] is in that mix,” Cassidy added. “And I think that’s more of what you see around the league, as opposed to the [Charas] that are power and strength and shutting down more with their size.”
It will be up to McAvoy, added Moore, to define his destiny.
“It’ll be tough to take that and apply it to Charlie,” he said, considering the chore it will be to pick up where Chara leaves off. “Because Charlie’s his own player, and [considering] Z’s career being what it is but Charlie is well on his way in being in the conversation as one of the premier defensemen in the game.”
The time of transition doesn’t arrive on a single day, or on a big hit, or with a number circled in red on a calendar. But the shift is upon the Bruins backline now and it has McAvoy’s name written all over it.