Anderson: Yes, Charlie McAvoy is already this important to Bruins

Ty Anderson
January 25, 2018 - 2:59 pm

Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports

It’s amazing to think that rookie defenseman Charlie McAvoy’s abnormal heart rhythm, which required a procedure expected to keep the 20-year-old Calder candidate out for another week-plus, has already led to an abnormal rhythm within the B’s defense corps.

With McAvoy out for Tuesday’s 3-2 win over the Devils, the Bruins reunited the Zdeno Chara-Brandon Carlo top-pairing they trotted out for almost all 82 games of the regular season last season. That move reunited Torey Krug with Adam McQuaid, as well as the Matt Grzelcyk and Kevan Miller bottom-pairing that’s excelled in their small sample.

But with the Devils’ most creative and consistent scoring threat, Taylor Hall, also out of action, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy visibly struggled to find the perfect matchup for the Chara-Carlo pairing against a considerably small and quick Jersey squad.

“We tried to get Zee and Carlo against bigger bodies, and sometimes the way we look at it is five-on-five scoring as well. Sometimes guys might surprise you who the leaders are,” Cassidy said after the win. “[Tuesday], you looked at their top group – you see [Jesper] Bratt and [Nico] Hischier even though they split them up, and [Kyle] Palmieri. That’s a smaller group, so maybe it’s a better matchup for the Grzelcyk- Miller or Krug, so Zee gets a [Miles] Wood and a [Stefan] Noesen or a [Brian] Boyle later. They have a lot of five-on-five goals, those players, so that’s what we looked at.”

And it was at five-on-five that the Chara-Carlo pairing got crushed, with both players finishing the win as negative possession players, and that was with seeing a heavy dose of players you would not necessarily consider to be the Devils’ best options.

It was… strange, to say the least.

“When Hall is out and they don’t have that big name so to speak, then it becomes a little more by committee; he gets who he gets,” Cassidy continued of Chara and his optimal matchup. “You know [Thursday in] Ottawa – I know if [Mark] Stone is in, it will probably be him; he does a lot of their scoring. That happens rarely where [Chara] doesn’t have a defined matchup in the other team’s top high-end talent, and [Tuesday] I think we mixed it up a little because of that. It’s just the way it played out; that’s their lineup.”

As Cassidy said, this is something that will seldom happen, as most teams have a top-tier scoring threat Cassidy will want to stick Chara on like glue. But when it does, and when it happens without McAvoy, it’s clear that the Bruins have a weakness up top.

The weakness? It’s a pairing that doesn’t necessarily embody everything that Cassidy would like to see -- strong first passes, offensive risk-taking -- out of a 25-minute duo.

In addition to a right-side impact that’s shown him capable of slowing down other the opposition’s best players -- McAvoy has rarely been benched the ice in late-game, lead-protecting situations and has passed tests against teams like the Penguins, Islanders, and countless others -- McAvoy has been pivotal when it comes to the B’s desire to create offense from their defense. Whether it’s through that strong first pass out of the defensive zone, joining the rush for an added scoring option with quick transition into the attacking zone, or just generally pushing the pace the other way, McAvoy has become the posterboy for the perfect execution of Cassidy’s system.

Put that kind of talent with the defensive impact of a 40-year-old Chara and the results are straight-up staggering, with the Bruins outscoring the opposition 29-to-14 at five-on-five with Chara-McAvoy on the ice. That plus-15 goal-differential currently ranks as the second-best in all of the NHL this year, trailing the No. 1 spot by just one goal.

Now, when you put Carlo and Chara together, you’re going to get all-world defense. That’s not up for debate. This pairing was the perfect one-two punch for Claude Julien’s seemingly offensively-strapped squad that relied heavily on winning close games. The duo, tasked with almost every important defensive-zone situation, especially late in games, allowed just 56 goals in over 1,200 all-situation minutes together last year.

Offensively, though, neither player is built to shoulder McAvoy’s responsibilities.

Not even close.

Carlo, who has spent most of the season as the necessary defensive wall on a pairing with Krug, has seen his already limited offensive game regress into almost nothing. The 6-foot-9 Chara, who draws more pesky forechecker attention with each passing game and season, meanwhile, has hit the point in his career where he runs into trouble should he try to ‘do too much’ when the puck is on his stick in the defensive zone.

It can be a rough watch, forcing the Bruins to rely on strictly Krug (and maybe now Grzelcyk to a far lesser degree) for their offensive chances, and the Bruins know it.

“I thought there were good moments, and there’s moments that they need to work better together to break pucks out,” Cassidy admitted of his pairs after Tuesday. “Things happen quick, and it looks like at times, ‘Wow the D missed that one.’ Yes, there were some times when they didn’t execute, but were our forwards working to the right spots to make those passing lanes bigger? And that’s part of it. We’ve always said that here; the four guys without the puck are equally as important as the guy with the puck if you want to be a transition team, and that’s something that we’re going to look at.”

But as easy as it is to suggest that the execution is off, it’s even easier for Cassidy to say what this really is: “Wow, the D missed that one rookie wearing No. 73.”

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