BOSTON - Words like "brilliant" and "phenom" have been tossed around with great regularity through the first half-season of 20-year-old Charlie McAvoy's NHL career and with good reason, given a consistent performance that belies his rookie status.
McAvoy leads all NHL rookies by a wide margin with 22:54 of ice time per game and has been strong at both ends of the ice with five goals and 21 points along with a plus-14 rating in 40 games. He's had moments of brilliance for the Black and Gold with a couple of game-winning shootout tries and he's consistently lined up against the other team's best offensive players while in a top D-man pairing with Zdeno Chara.
"He just loves being out there. He's not shy in the big moments and he doesn't get nervous," said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. "It's just a lot of things in his makeup and in his personality that allows him to [play big minutes]. That's what I see. He's a special talent in that way."
Rookies McAvoy, Danton Heinen and Jake DeBrusk have been a big part of Boston's first-half success story, and they'll need to continue that level of contribution if Boston is going to finish strong in a grueling second half of the season. There is one unfortunate difference between McAvoy, compared to Heinen and DeBrusk, that might come into play over the next few months, however.
Both DeBrusk and Heinen rounded out their pro game with a full AHL season in Providence last year, and it's clearly shown in their mature, developed games this season. They also played a ton of hockey last year with the P-Bruins.
McAvoy made the jump pretty much straight from college hockey to the NHL with just four games of AHL in between last season.
He played 48 games between Boston University, the AHL and the playoff series with the Bruins last spring, and that's the most he's ever played in his hockey career.
McAvoy just hit the 40 games played mark prior to the B's bye week and he's already played more games than he did with the Terriers last season. It's common for NCAA players to hit a bit of a "rookie wall" in their first pro season given the jump in games played and schedule density and McAvoy knows that might be waiting for him in the second half.
"Right around now is as many college games as I've ever played in a college season. I think it was around 38 [games] or 39 maybe? My season would be pretty much all done right now," admitted McAvoy, which is kind of daunting when one thinks about it. "The good thing is that I feel good right now. The good thing is that we're playing good hockey and it's exciting to come to the rink every day. We have a good energy.
"This bye week is going to be nice to recharge, take some time away and then come back and be excited for the second half. But as far as learning stuff, there are still plenty of things I'm trying to learn about how to be a good pro. How do I take care of my body as we reach the halfway mark here? How am I going to be capable of playing another 40 games? It's a good thing I'm able to lean on, and piggyback off, so many good veteran players in the room. They've been very supportive."
Still, one of McAvoy's best attributes is his swaggering confidence and that's how he'll approach a challenging second-half schedule after showing moments of domination in his first 40 games. The mere fact that at 6 feet, 208 pounds, he's a big, strong workhorse defenseman capable of playing massive NHL minute totals with zero drop-off in his game might just make him an exception to the "rookie wall" rule.
"I don't like to go there. I want to stay in the present," said McAvoy. "We'll get to that point in March [where the B's play a whopping 16 games], and hopefully we'll be in a good position when we do. It won't be easy to win all those games late in the year when guys are a little tired, but at this point, we're worried about the right now."
With a veteran player where fatigue might be a concern, limiting practice time and managing workloads might be the best course of action in a particularly heavy stretch of games. But that runs counter to what a young player such as McAvoy might need with repetition and practice still an important part of their continued NHL development.
The only way the Bruins and McAvoy will find out is by simply going through it and adjusting to whatever lies in store for the 20-year-old the next four months. But McAvoy's virtuoso play from the back end was a big part of Boston's first-half success and it will need to continue if the Bruins are going to finish strong.