McAvoy growing into leader as No. 1 defenseman for Bruins in playoffs

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When the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders open the Stanley Cup Second Round on Saturday, there is one near certainty: That Charlie McAvoy will be everywhere, skating and skating and skating — at even strength, on the power play, on the penalty kill, in regulation and overtime. 

It’s something David Quinn understands better than almost anyone, having coached McAvoy at Boston University and against him in the NHL. It’s something he has always believed would happen, an “I told you so” in his mind, as he has watched the 23-year-old blossom. 

So when Quinn, fired as coach of the New York Rangers on May 12, is asked about McAvoy’s ability to play all those minutes, he laughs. He thinks about McAvoy now and McAvoy five years ago, and the fact that at neither of those times was the baby-faced player going to be featured in Men’s Fitness.

“He went to the combine and, when he came back from the combine, I said to him, ‘I got so many teams calling me asking me if you’re in shape or not,'” Quinn said. “He goes, ‘These damn cheeks are killing me.’

“But he’s always had an iron lung. He’s always been in good cardiovascular shape. And he never tires, man. He never tires.”

The Bruins are learning that about the player that has inherited the role as the No. 1 defenseman on a team with legitimate aspirations to win the Stanley Cup. The next step begins with Game 1 against the Islanders on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC).

Video: Top plays from New York vs. Boston matchup

“He averaged 27 minutes over the course of the series and was really dominant on both sides of the puck for large, large stretches,” general manager Don Sweeney said.

“That summarizes his year. Everything we give him he seems to excel at and, obviously, still a young guy in this league that’s only going to get better,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “There’s a tremendous ceiling, he seems to get highly motivated for the bright lights.

“And the thing that goes unnoticed with Charlie is he plays a lot of hard minutes but recovers well. He’s just got a real good ability to reset and get back out there. I don’t know if he’s got extra-large lungs or what.”

Zdeno Chara, the likely future Hall of Famer, left the Bruins as an unrestricted free agent when the team he captained for 14 years opted to go younger with its defense. The 44-year-old signed a one-year contract with the Capitals on Dec. 30, 2020.

That put the defense in the hands of McAvoy.

“Just trying to do whatever the team needs me to do, whatever I can to help us win hockey games,” McAvoy said. “I think that’s everyone’s mindset, everybody’s pulling the rope and guys are elevating, the whole team’s elevating. We’re trying to build something here; we’re trying to grow each game.

“It’s the playoffs now and winning’s all that matters. So I’m just trying to pull the rope just like everybody. I think that’s what the whole team is doing.”

There have been ups and downs among the defensive group the Bruins assembled after the departures of Chara and Torey Krug, who signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 9, 2020. But the change in personnel has not adversely affected McAvoy, who has increased his offensive and defensive profiles and is beginning to see his name mentioned in the debate about the Norris Trophy, awarded to the best defenseman in the NHL.

“A guy that attacks the ice, attacks seams, attacks down walls,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “Defensively I think you’ve got to realize when he’s on the ice and how you’re going to play him, how you’re going to defend against him. But to me, he can add a gear — a good two-way player — but he certainly adds a gear offensively.”

Perhaps that’s where McAvoy has blossomed most.

“I think he’s learned how to create offense crossing that offensive blue line there,” Quinn said. “He’s always had the ability to come through the ‘D’ zone and the neutral zone. I think now he’s getting more comfortable creating offense off the rush in the offensive zone, but also once the play is established in the offensive zone.”

McAvoy’s shot has improved, well beyond what Quinn saw when McAvoy first arrived at BU in 2015. Defensemen who can skate as well as McAvoy don’t always need to learn to shoot when they’re coming up, Quinn pointed out, something that was also the case with his Bruins defense partner, Matt Grzelcyk, a teammate of McAvoy’s at BU.

The difference now is notable.

“Both these guys worked hard at shooting, at improving the shot, creating more of a shooting mentality,” Quinn said.

McAvoy’s increasing profile was reflected in his time on ice during the regular season. He played 24:00 minutes per game this season, up from 23:10 in 2019-20. He played 1:59 on the power play, up from 1:21. He played 2:24 shorthanded, up from 1:49.

He got a promotion after Game 1 of the series against the Capitals from the second power-play unit to the top unit, swapping spots with Grzelcyk.

It was what the Bruins hoped they might get when they selected McAvoy with the No. 14 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.

“You could see the skillset, the skating, the fact that he could play a lot of minutes, we saw that in him,” Bruins president Cam Neely said. “But he’s really taken it to another level this year, and good on him.”

McAvoy adding penalty killing to his resume this season when defensemen Kevan Miller (knee) and Brandon Carlo (concussion and upper body) were injured for long stretches. Carlo played in 27 regular-season games, Miller 28.

“There’s not a lot he can’t do,” Quinn said. “He just plays with such swagger. He’s physical. He’s fearless. He’s got great skill. He can skate. Just really not a lot of things that he can’t do. And a mistake doesn’t rattle him, which I think all great players need to have.

“He’s a big-time player. He embraces big moments.”

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