The Ottawa Senators had a nice opportunity to exploit at home in Game 1 of their first-round matchup against the Boston Bruins Wednesday night. The Bruins’ D-crops was worn down to the bone, missing vital contributors Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo. Captain Zdeno Chara, 40, would lead a ragtag group of rearguards including John-Michael Liles, Adam McQuaid, Colin Miller and Kevan Miller. Oh, and some kid named Charlie McAvoy who’d never played an NHL shift.
No big deal. McAvoy would slot onto the top pair with Chara and log 24:11 of ice time, becoming the third rookie this century to play at least 24 minutes in his post-season debut, joining Paul Martin and Johnny Boychuk. Martin was 23 at the time, by the way, and Boychuk was 26. McAvoy is 19. The Bruins took down Ottawa 2-1 in Game 1, with McAvoy finishing as a plus-1 and even logging 4:23 of power play time.
It was an impressive debut for a player one year removed from being the youngest player in NCAA Div. I hockey, let alone NHL hockey. But to anyone who’s followed McAvoy’s game over the past couple years, seeing him slide right into a high-pressure situation wasn’t a surprise at all. He’s precisely the type of player who’s hardwired for that.
The Bruins grabbed McAvoy 14th overall at the 2016 draft, and he’s since ascended to No. 4 overall prospect status in THN Future Watch. He has a do-it-all skill set on the blueline that gives him a Drew Doughty-like ceiling. But not every casual hockey fan knows that. In fact, a lot of incorrect information about McAvoy floated around in the minutes, hours and days after Boston drafted him.
There was the story of him being raised by tough firefighter father. That sounds irresistible. It’s also untrue. Charlie Jr. has been asked about his dad’s dangerous line of work time and again, but the reality is Charlie Sr. runs McAvoy Plumbing Inc. He inspires his son and three daughters every day by strapping on the work boots and grinding out a good living.
The other fake McAvoy tale floating around is that he holds contempt for the team that drafted him. Moments after the Boston Bruins made him their next blueline cornerstone last June, an old tweet surfaced from McAvoy’s Twitter account that read, “I hate the Bruins so much.” He’s a New York native, and his beloved Rangers had bowed out of the 2013 playoffs at the hands of Boston when he wrote it. McAvoy, just 15 at the time, was venting like any adolescent would.
“Clearly in a split second there, you lose all allegiance to any team you were a fan of, and whoever drafts you becomes your new favorite team, and that’s exactly what happened with the Bruins,” McAvoy told THN in February. “So anyone who took that out of context and gave me a hard time…I didn’t really know what to say, especially right away when they were asking me about it. I just thought it was a bit silly.”
With the intel on McAvoy’s off-ice life so muddy, it’s best to get it right from the source. What we now know, directly from his mouth, is he grew up idolizing Brian Leetch. The Rangers won the Stanley Cup and Leetch the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1994, before McAvoy was born, but he got his hands on an old championship highlight video as a kid. He watched it until he had Leetch’s style imprinted on his brain. You can tell that by the way he played for NCAA powerhouse Boston University before turning pro in late March. He’s an effortless skater, blessed with pure offensive instincts. He takes risks at a both ends of the ice. He can control a game. At 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, McAvoy is much thicker than Leetch was, but that doesn’t slow him down.
“How can a guy his size slither by people looking like Johnny Gaudreau?” said BU Terriers coach David Quinn in February. “Charlie sometimes just finds his way through a maze of people and you’re like, ‘How the hell did that happen?’ ”
McAvoy debuted with BU in 2015-16. He’s used to being the kid on the ice, having played in the USHL as a 15-year-old against some 19- and 20-year-olds, and he felt that prepared him well for his eventual NHL debut. One game in, he sure seems to be right. Still, even if McAvoy felt unfazed by his youth last year, his college coach saw a marked transition between freshman and sophomore.
“He had a very good year last year, but it’s a hard year for guys during their draft year,” Quinn said. “At times they can tend to do too much. It’s just human nature. You realize when you’re as highly thought of as Charlie, you know every night you have 30 teams in the stands watching you. It can be distracting, and I think at times last year it was, but he did a great job managing it. This year it’s a much easier year for him, because there is not that added pressure.”
Quinn described his pupil as mature and confident without being arrogant. He called McAvoy “the type of guy that, when guys get to the rink, they want to go find where Charlie is.” He’s galvanizing figure in the dressing room, and that came out at the 2017 World Junior Championship, where he was an alternate captain for Team USA. He had six points in seven games en route to a gold medal in a thrilling final against Canada that went to a shootout. Talk emerged of McAvoy being a thunderous voice in the room, particularly during that final game. What he told his fellow troops was a blur, he says, but he feels the tournament changed him. He came back asking Quinn for a letter on his jersey. The request was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but Quinn ended up honoring it after Terriers assistant captain Nikolas Olsson broke his leg.
The challenge for Quinn was to walk the line between allowing McAvoy use his offensive gifts and not letting him become a liability with his risk taking. Now the Bruins and coach Bruce Cassidy inherit that assignment. The Bruins know they have a special prospect on their hands, maybe even a future captain, but McAvoy will have to cut down on his mistakes at the NHL level. Because he’s so well rounded, he sometimes wastes a lot of energy trying to do too much, which can fatigue him and leave him caught in bad positions. But Quinn believes McAvoy has improved dramatically at managing those situations.
“I don’t think I play as much of a run-and-gun game as I used to,” McAvoy said. “Playing responsible is something that I’ve grown a lot in. As far as taking risks, I try to play the game hard and take the chances I think are smart chances and responsible chances. I don’t really know if I’d say I have free rein…I just try to play the best I can, contribute when I can and make sure defense comes first.”
If the 2016 draft rebooted today, McAvoy might jump from 14th into the top five. His talent is unmistakable, and his flaws are the kind that can be coached away.
There’s a lot of fake info about McAvoy floating around, but nothing to do with hockey. We know exactly who he is on the ice. Now the NHL does, too. So much for Ottawa getting a free pass against a depleted D-corps.