BOSTON — Charlie McAvoy is probably not going to win the Norris Trophy this season.
It won’t be because he isn’t one of the best defenseman in the National Hockey League, though.
Instead, it’ll be for two reasons primarily: he doesn’t put up gaudy offensive numbers, such as Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, Washington’s John Carlson or Adam Fox of the Rangers. He could be overlooked for the likes of Colorado’s Cale Makar or Dougie Hamilton of the Hurricanes too. Also, voters across the continent don’t watch enough Bruins games to appreciate all of the ways in which he impacts the play on a nightly basis.
That’s a shame, because McAvoy is continually blossoming into the superstar blue liner that the Bruins hoped, and expected, he’d become when they drafted him in the first round (14th overall) of the 2016 draft.
With Zdeno Chara now skating for the Capitals and Torey Krug doing likewise in St. Louis, McAvoy was expected to step his game up and has done so splendidly. He’s averaging over 24 minutes a night, plays in all situations, has become more responsible defensively (a trait he was already very good at) and, with an end-of-the-regular-season flourish, could tie or equal his career best in assists (27).
But his is also a game of microcosms, tiny slices of brilliance that often lead to more noteworthy plays such as goals by his teammates. Take this play from Thursday’s 5-2 win over the Sabres at TD Garden, a sequence that came so smoothly and naturally to McAvoy that it was overshadowed only by the end result it caused.
With just seconds to go in the first period and Boston on the power play, McAvoy took a pass from behind the net while skating along the left wall. Buffalo defenseman Drake Caggiula attempted to knock the puck free, but McAvoy shielded him away from the puck all while moving from along the blueline over near the top of the right circle. Without stopping, he got goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen to slid over to the left side of his crease, anticipating a last-second shot, before flinging a cross-ice feed to David Krejci in the far circle for a one-time lamplighter with 0.2 seconds until intermission.
“He’s a really good playmaker,” Krejci said of McAvoy. “He gets the goalie committed and made a great feed to me. I just had to hit it hard.
“He’s really good at selling the shot and getting the goalie moving over.”
The ability to simply curl with the puck on his stick, still moving through the top of the offensive zone with the intention of dishing it off to a teammate with a one-timer cranked up and ready to go, while fending off a defender is exactly what makes McAvoy so skilled, so talented, so valuable to this team.
It wasn’t the play people were talking about afterwards; that was either Charlie Coyle’s offensive zone steal and much needed goal to give the Bruins the lead for good in the third period, or the ensuing tally by Taylor Hall in which Krejci fed him with a beautiful curl-and-drag feet for the one-time bullet. But hockey fans who pay attention to the whole game see what kind of impact No. 73 makes nightly.
When the puck is on his blade, good things are happening for the Bruins. His Corsi For is over 56 percent on the season, and his defensive point shares of 4.0 is also among the league leaders. He’s a plus-17 on the season (yeah, that stat still matters). He plays with pace and poise on virtually every shift.
What McAvoy has done very well the last few weeks, coinciding with his team’s uptick in play (along with the trades for Taylor Hall, Curtis Lazar and Mike Reilly) is his habit of moving the puck up the ice with smart, crisp passes as opposed to trying to lug it through the neutral zone. His teammates have followed suit, which is why the Bruins — who had trouble doing so against heavy teams such as the Islanders earlier this season — are now finding it easier to get into the offensive zone and generate scoring chances.
Even when his defensive partner (currently Jeremy Lauzon) makes some ill-advised decisions, McAvoy’s intellect and positioning usually allows him to put some White-Out on the mistake before it becomes glaring.
A Norris Trophy would be nice, and there’s a good chance one (or more) will be coming in his future.
So what if it’s not this season? There’s a bigger, shiner trophy that McAvoy would rather hoist, anyway.
Phil Stacey, the Executive Sports Editor of The Salem News, covers the Boston Bruins for CNHI Sports Boston. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN