For three seasons Zdeno Chara (6-foot-9) was a towering figure, the Bruins captain and a Stanley Cup winner, a forceful presence and a shutdown expert who made his debut in the NHL a month before McAvoy was born. He had taken other young defensemen under his wing in recent seasons — Brandon Carlo, particularly — but none had the potential of McAvoy.
Now with Chara having signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Washington Capitals on Dec. 30, McAvoy has a chance to step out of that shadow and into the spotlight.
“I’ve played with ‘Zee’ every shift of every game since we’ve been at it,” McAvoy said. “And that’s something that I feel incredibly fortunate to have done and very lucky to have shared those experiences and played with and gotten to know him as a person. … [I don’t want to put] a crazy expectation for myself or some crazy goals.”
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But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to lead the Bruins defensemen in Chara’s place, that he doesn’t want to find a new level amidst the responsibility he’s been shouldering for some time.
“He wants that,” said defenseman Torey Krug, a mentor and teammate of McAvoy’s on the Bruins before he signed with the St. Louis Blues as a free agent on Oct. 9. “He thrives when he gets that responsibility from the coaching staff. He wants to prove that he can play in all situations and he’s ready to go.
“He wants to be that guy and he’ll get his shot now.”
With Chara and Krug gone, McAvoy has become the No. 1 defenseman on a Bruins team built from its blue line out. The Bruins will test that this season, filling out their defensemen group with young, unproven players, putting even more of the onus on the 23-year-old to soar.
“We need him to continue to grow,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “He’s a young guy that still has a long way to go in this League to reach his ceiling — and when I say that, it’s not being disrespectful. … It’s just time is the best teacher, so he has that in front of him. We just need him to play good solid hockey every night.”
Not that that’s anything new. As Chara slowed in the past few seasons, McAvoy was relied on more and more, for more minutes, more important minutes, against the best competition. Though Carlo has grown into a shutdown presence in the mold of Chara, McAvoy has grown into his all-around game.
“I’ve been kind of thrust into those situations of playing those difficult minutes,” said McAvoy, who played 25:10 per game during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, after scoring 32 points (five goals, 27 assists) while averaging 23:10 in the regular season.
“I’ve obviously had Zee there by my side to do that, but I’ve been playing a fair amount of minutes. And I’ve been playing against those top guys. … I’m not really trying to overwork myself or my brain and start thinking I’m going to have to take on the world this year when I don’t. I’m just going to be playing the same way that I have been.”
The way he’s played from the very start.
College hockey had been good to McAvoy. He arrived at Boston University at 17, excelled, enough to be drafted by the Bruins with the No. 14 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. And then came the 2017 playoffs, when the Bruins — short of bodies, with injuries to Carlo and Krug – inserted him into the heat of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Ottawa Senators.
“I was sure of myself in college and I knew I was good,” McAvoy said. “With that being said, I didn’t blow the doors off of college hockey or anything and win a Hobey [Baker Award] and have a million points. Like, college was challenging.
“When I got thrust in there, there’s absolutely a part of you that’s like, I don’t know if I can do this. And I’m not really sure what happened, but some sort of switch kind of got flicked.”
And he shined, even as he still needed time to grow into his potential. That has been what the past three seasons have been – his apprenticeship.
“For a while there he showed spurts of it,” Krug said. “He could be a little immature sometimes at practice, whether he was sleepy or just wasn’t putting in the time and effort. He is a hard worker, I will say that, but that stuff — just showing up for practice and being 100 percent on your prep, your passes, and putting in the work, putting your head down and being intense every day, that just takes time. Guys have to learn that.”
Because of that, Krug said that at times last season he could be extra hard on McAvoy, on purpose. He wanted to push ahead a process that had already started during the 2018-19 season and especially in the 2019 playoffs when the Bruins lost to the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Final, as Cassidy and the Bruins began to treat him like the team’s No. 1 defenseman.
After his rookie season, in which he finished second on the Bruins in time on ice (22:09) to Chara (22:54), no one on Boston played more minutes than he did (22:10 in 2018-19; 23:10 in 2019-20).
“You see a guy like Charlie, who frankly can be a top defenseman in the League and at times it’s frustrating as an older guy because you see all the talent in the world spewing out of [him] and you want [him] to mature right before your eyes,” Krug said. “But that stuff just takes time.
“And he’s approaching that time now where he’s got to put it on his shoulders and be his own man and be that guy for the Boston Bruins.”
There is no Chara to lean on. No Krug to mentor him.
“Charlie really shouldn’t have any increased or added pressure,” Sweeney said. “He’s been at that level.”
He has learned from Chara and Krug. He has watched them and taken notes. He has gotten older, slightly, and more experienced in the NHL.
The shadow is gone. It’s on him.
As Krug said, “Now it’s time for him to be the man.”