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Why Bruins' McAvoy is much more than a Calder Trophy afterthought

Charlie McAvoy doesn't have the offensive totals to match the best of the rookie class, but his game-to-game impact might be more impressive than any other freshman.

A few times through the early season we’ve taken time to dig into the Calder Trophy race. It’s hard to resist when there’s a rookie crop as deep as this season’s group, which boasts six players above the 20-point mark one-third of the way through the campaign and four who have already hit double-digit goal totals. But despite the deep stable of first-year scorers, the early season has already lent itself to some favorites for the award, most notably the top-scoring trio consisting of Mathew Barzal, Brock Boeser and Clayton Keller.

Invariably, though, the mere mention of the Calder brings with it talk of the outside contenders, the Alex DeBrincats, Nico Hischiers, Mikhail Sergachevs and Will Butchers of the freshman class. Each has their own case, to be sure, all of which are predicated on point totals commensurate with those leading the league’s rookie race. Butcher, a rearguard, is the lowest-scoring of the bunch with 18 points to his name, while big numbers in recent weeks have pushed DeBrincat and Hischier to the 20-point plateau.

But sitting outside the top 10 in scoring might be one of the league’s sneakiest Calder candidates this season, a rearguard whose point totals aren’t quite up there with the Butchers and Sergachevs and well off the pace that Barzal and Boeser have established, but whose game-to-game impact may very well be more than any other rookie skater to take the ice this season: Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy.

In a season where high-scoring rookies are getting all the ink, McAvoy, who will turn 20 in two weeks’ time, has been the fresh-faced stalwart that is giving the Bruins a young, top-pairing option who can get the job done at both ends of the ice. Offensively, his numbers may not shine as bright as the top-scoring rookie defensemen, but his four goals and 15 points are good enough to put him 13th in rookie scoring and 24th among all blueliners, tied with the likes of Colton Parayko, Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Suter and one of last season’s rookie darlings, Zach Werenski. But it’s what McAvoy is accomplishing off the scoresheet that is most impressive.

Through 25 games this season, McAvoy earned the trust of Boston coach Bruce Cassidy and has shown himself to be nothing less than a top-pairing defenseman despite the fact he’s at an age where most rearguards are taking minutes in the fourth, fifth and sixth spots on the back end. His average ice time is 23:36 and, when compared to rookies, both forwards and defenders, there isn’t another skater even close. The next-closest rookie in terms of ice time is Colorado Avalanche defender Samuel Girard, who is logging 19:35 per outing. That’s four fewer minutes per game. McAvoy’s ice time gap only widens from there.

McAvoy’s ice time is all the more impressive when you compare it to defensemen league-wide. On a per-game average, there are only 28 defensemen in the NHL skating more minutes than McAvoy, who sits in a class with Marco Scandella, Ryan McDonagh, Hampus Lindholm and Alec Martinez, but there’s not a single rearguard in the league who has kept up with McAvoy when it comes to even-strength time on ice. In his 25 games, McAvoy is averaging 20:43 at evens. The next-best defenseman, and this isn’t a typo, is noted defensive workhorse Suter, skating 20:32 at even strength per outing, followed by Drew Dougthy (20:22) and Erik Karlsson (20:15).

Ice time is one thing, though. What matters most is effectiveness when on the ice. And McAvoy most certainly can’t be overlooked when it comes to putting together a top-level performance in the playing time he’s been afforded. Of the 150 defensemen to skate at least 300 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, McAvoy ranks 19th with a solid 54.3 percent Corsi For percentage, ranks 44th with a 52.3 expected goals for percentage and has an actual goals for percentage of 53.1, putting him 54th among the 300-minute rearguards. And while there’s some sheltering going on — McAvoy has a heavier slant of offensive-zone to defensive-zone starts — only Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug have faced a higher quality of competition among Bruins blueliners.

And there’s been no better example of McAvoy taking on and shutting down top players than his performance during the Bruins’ 3-2 victory over the league-best Tampa Bay Lightning on Nov. 29. In that contest, McAvoy was consistently out against the Lightning’s top trio of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov, often starting shifts in the Bruins’ zone, but the rookie rearguard finished the game with a 66.7 Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5 and notched a goal against Tampa Bay’s top line. Not only that, but the Bruins had nearly 80 percent of the total scoring chances at 5-on-5 when McAvoy was on the ice. His impact in that game was remarkable.

Performing as he has, though, makes one wonder whether there’s a case for McAvoy to sneak into the Calder conversation in a season where point-producing forwards are seemingly all the rage and taking over the race. That said, there is some precedent — and recent, at that — for McAvoy to overtake his freshmen counterparts. 

In 2014-15, Aaron Ekblad won the Calder despite finishing eighth in rookie scoring with 39 points in a campaign which saw Mark Stone, Johnny Gaudreau and Filip Forsberg hit the low 60s with 20-plus goals apiece. Yet Ekblad, who skated nearly 22 minutes per night and produced solid possession numbers, earned the award with 71 first-place nods and 73.1 percent of the total vote. The one differentiating factor here, however, may be age. Ekblad had been drafted ahead of the start of the campaign, earned a spot as an 18-year-old and became a top-pairing defenseman. McAvoy, drafted 14th overall in 2016, had an additional season at college level, a four-game run in the AHL and a look at the NHL post-season before his rookie campaign began in earnest. And by the time the season is over, McAvoy will be 20, whereas Ekblad had only recently celebrated his 19th birthday.

So, sure, McAvoy might not be a frontrunner right now, he might not be keeping pace with the top-scoring forwards, but the longer he plays top-pairing minutes and proves he can be a difference-making defenseman for the Bruins, the stronger his Calder case becomes.

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