Charlie McAvoy has led the Boston Bruins in average ice time for more than half his NHL career.
He led the team last season at 23:10 and the year before at 22:10. As a rookie in 2017-18, he was second at 22:09, just 45 seconds behind Zdeno Chara. He jumped into the Stanley Cup Playoffs with no prior NHL experience as a 19-year-old in 2017 and averaged 26:12 of ice time.
The Bruins’ 2016 first-round pick (No. 14) knows what it takes to carry a heavy burden at the sport’s highest level. Any lessons he didn’t learn the past three years under Chara, well he better start cramming.
Because in no uncertain terms this is the now-23-year-old McAvoy’s team.
Sure Patrice Bergeron is the Bruins’ best all-around player, a future Hall of Famer, and the team’s next captain (Chara said so himself Thursday). David Pastrnak is the electric offensive star and goofball-charming entertainer of the team. Brad Marchand’s Bergeron Lite on the wing.
But the Bruins’ championship teams take their cues from the leader of the defense corps. From Eddie Shore to Bobby Orr to Zdeno Chara — with all the years of Ray Bourque producing plenty of magical moments but coming up short of the Stanley Cup — there’s always been a passing of the torch from blue-line leader to blue-line leader.
The torch was unceremoniously passed a little earlier than expected this week with Chara’s departure for Washington, so now we’re going to find out if McAvoy is ready.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney played more than 1,000 games for the Bruins and saw up-close how important it was having Bourque on the back end and all over the ice. He also saw what it was like when the Bruins didn’t have someone to immediately give the torch. Sweeney also saw Chara grow into his role and then help develop McAvoy, whom Sweeney drafted.
Sweeney probably knows the second-most important thing right now after McAvoy’s continued improvement is to not weigh McAvoy with too lofty expectations. The GM worked to lower the bar a tad in comments Thursday.
“I do believe he plays a lion’s share of the minutes and has puck possession, he leads our hockey club in those areas and we don’t want that to change,” Sweeney said about McAvoy. “He shouldn’t feel that he needs any undue pressure on him to change. He just has to go out and play the way that Charlie is capable of playing. We have to have the other people step into minutes and roles and carry the load. That’s as simple as it is.
“One player is not going to get you to the promised land, it has to be the collection of the group.”
Sweeney, though, knows all too well that even the most balanced championship-caliber teams have elite-level players capable of lifting their teammates when they’re not clicking on all cylinders. These are the players the team looks to at the most crucial moments, the ones that block that extra shot at the end of a 90-second shift or kill an entire power play or make a timely hit when the Bruins need a spiritual lift.
We’ve seen glimpses of this during McAvoy’s relatively brief stay on Causeway. Just ask Carolina center Jordan Staal, no stranger to leading a championship-hungry team, what McAvoy can do out in the open ice with his physicality.
Go watch the way McAvoy has moved the puck and how he’s joined the play during his best stretches of NHL hockey. The confidence is there, the consistency has to keep coming along.
There has to be an increase in offensive production that comes with the defensive improvement. McAvoy famously didn’t score a goal until February last season. He was a bit shy with his shot, a bit unlucky at other times. He averaged 1.51 shots on net per game, after averaging 1.46 shots the season before. He finished with 32 points.
The player McAvoy is most often compared, Drew Doughty, had 40 points in his third NHL season after he had 58 as a sophomore. Doughty has averaged 41.8 points over his 12 seasons; McAvoy has averaged 30 points through three seasons. There’s room for improvement, but McAvoy isn’t too far off.
When it comes to leadership, McAvoy doesn’t have to find a voice like Chara’s. Leadership can always be shared. Bergeron, Marchand, David Krejci, and Charlie Coyle are still around. Among defensemen, Brandon Carlo might be better suited for a speaking role. That doesn’t mean McAvoy hasn’t contributed with his words and won’t continue to speak up. He has time to maybe ascend to the ‘C.’
Of course, some of this is predicated on his and the Bruins’ commitment to each other — McAvoy’s contract expires after 2022. If all goes according to plan, even as a restricted free agent he’ll be looking for a lot more than $4.9 million per season. Again, Sweeney’s experience might help as much as Jeremy Jacobs’ money in getting that done because Sweeney knows replacing what McAvoy is, and what McAvoy could become, would be one of the most difficult task in the sport.
To take a line from Spider-Man and mix it up a bit, with great talent comes great responsibilities and expectations. Carlo is an outstanding talent for what he does, Matt Grzelcyk is a terrific story and plays to his strengths, and one or more of the Bruins’ valued defense prospects might emerge as top-three blueliners. But McAvoy’s the blue chip, the stud, the high draft pick with the international and NHL pedigree. He’s the guy with the size, strength and skating ability that’s supposed to be the foundation of the defense corps in the model of Orr, Bourque, and Chara.
It may be too late for a Christmas present, but Charlie McAvoy was given a team for New Year’s. We’ll see what he does with it.