Ryan: Why you should start buying into hype of Charlie McAvoy as a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate

(Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

Following a 2019-20 season in which Charlie McAvoy finished 10th in voting for the Norris Trophy and compiled quite the highlight reel up in the Toronto bubbleBruce Cassidy opted to look to the future, rather than reflect on the sizable accomplishments that the young defenseman had already reached in his three-year NHL career.

It's a prudent frame of mind to be in when assessing a talent like McAvoy, considering that the star D-man put together such a campaign at just 22 years old.

"He’s got more. ... I don’t think anyone hits their ceiling at 22, to be honest with you," Cassidy said of McAvoy back in September. "There’s a lot of growth left in this game. ...  I think when you’re young, you have all kinds of energy. You want to make a difference every shift. I think that is where the difference between the elite defenseman that do it every night. They understand what nights they need to step up or what shifts, what periods, what time is in the game. We’re seeing a lot of that with Charlie. In fairness, I think there is some growth there on when to impact the game and when to sort of just do your job some nights when other guys are going. Obviously, I think the world of Charlie. He’s an elite defenseman who is only going to get better."

Sure enough, the expected miscues and hesitancy down both ends of the ice that come with a youngster learning the ropes in the NHL have largely dissipated for McAvoy, who has fully taken the reins of a reworked Bruins D corps featuring four starters aged 25 and under.

Wednesday's OT win over the Rangers — specifically the sequence that led to Brad Marchand's game-winning tally in the extra period — was emblematic of all that McAvoy can bring to his club when he's locked in. After batting down a cross-ice feed from Pavel Buchnevich in the B's zone, McAvoy turned a potential 2-on-1 bid for New York into a breakaway down the other end of the ice, banking the biscuit off the boards and ahead to Marchand, who skated in alone and beat Alexandar Georgiev to secure two points for the visitors at Madison Square Garden.

Not only did Marchand's goal hand Boston its fourth win in a row, it also extended McAvoy's assist streak to eight games in a row (1 goal, 10 assists during that stretch), with only one other Bruins blueliner in the last 35 years recording a point streak of eight or more games — Ray Bourque.

Pretty good company, to say the least.

But such a showing has been a regular sight for McAvoy in year four of his tenure in Boston — with the Long Island native averaging 24:28 of ice time per game and putting himself on pace for 51 points over a shorthanded 56-game campaign.

"I think Charlie's just a little more fluid in all areas," Cassidy said earlier this month, adding:  "I think it's been really good for him in all areas, looking around knowing that he's probably the Alpha Dog back there — even though he's as a young guy."

Without a doubt, McAvoy has been the top player on a revamped, younger Bruins' blue line so far in 2021.

But why stop there?

McAvoy has been one of the best players in the NHL this season — and looking more and more like a viable candidate for the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman in 2021.

Don't believe me? Let's take a deep dive at some of the numbers that McAvoy has put forth so far this year.

A heavier workload - and more offensive production

When McAvoy is on his game, few defensemen offer the complete skillset that the 23-year-old provides on every shift — whether it be negating scoring chances in Boston's zone, orchestrating breakouts, gaining clean entries and driving 5v5 offense from the blue line.

If there was ever a knock against the young defenseman — especially when it comes to his viability as a potential Norris candidate — it'd likely be linked to the lack of his baseline stats in the offensive zone, at least when compared to other contemporaries with much more gaudy numbers.

Of course, even those sentiments rang a bit hollow upon closer examination, given that McAvoy generated an individual even-strength points per 60 minutes rate (1.31) higher than noteworthy playmakers like Morgan Rielly (1.29), Alex Pietrangelo (1.29) and Brent Burns (1.15) last season. So yes, McAvoy didn't score until last February, got it, we know. But that doesn't mean he wasn't an offensive conduit during 5v5 action.

Thankfully, McAvoy has pretty much dispensed those narratives of not being a playmaking presence so far in 2021 with 11 points over his last eight games — with some addition power-play reps and the departure of Zdeno Chara opening the door for more O-zone starts for McAvoy.

Still, even at just 5v5 play, Boston's ability to allocate more O-zone faceoffs for McAvoy (57.55 Off. Zone Start percentage in 2021, as opposed to 44.2% in 2019-20) has yielded impressive results for the B's blueliner  — with the defenseman ranking second on Boston's roster (min. 20 minutes of 5v5 ice time) in expected goals per 60 minutes with a rate of 2.74, with only David Pastrnak holding the edge with an xGF/60 rate of 2.8.

(For Reference: Expected goals account for both shot quantity and quality by factoring in multiple shot factors, including the type of shot, distance from the net, angle, 5v5, power play, penalty kill, etc. In other words, the Bruins are expected to score 2.74 goals during 60 minutes of 5v5 ice time when McAvoy is on the ice.)

If you want to weigh McAvoy's 5v5 expected goal rate per 60 minutes against the 61 other NHL defensemen that have logged at least 200 minutes of 5v5 ice time this year, that 2.74 mark ranks fifth amongst that pool of skaters, trailing only Jakob Chychrun, Darnell Nurse, old friend Torey Krug and Ben Chiarot.

Given how much Boston has often been hampered in years past when it comes to relying on its top line of Patrice Bergeron and Co. for steady 5v5 offense, McAvoy's continued development into a consistent playmaker outside of power-play reps has been a revelation over the last few years — as even a skilled offensive force like Krug failed to generate much traction over the last few seasons outside of the man advantage.

(For reference on Micah Blake McCurdy’s individual impact charts via Hockey Viz — On the offensive side of things, you’d want to see a player providing positive numbers — with the red blobs signifying where the team is generating a majority of their shots from whenever said player is on the ice. Defensively, negative numbers are a sign that a team isn't generating shots whenever said player is on the ice. As such, the blue blobs represent where shots aren’t regularly coming from. As seen above, the Bruins are generating a serious number of excess shots when McAvoy is out there, especially in Grade-A ice and around the slot.)

"(He's) attacking more in the offensive zone, certainly taken a few more pucks down low. ... We've asked him to do some of that, bring some more offense from the back end," Cassidy said of McAvoy's O-zone play. Not just him, but he's the guy that is probably the most effective at it. So let's get some of that out of him. Closing in D zone. I think he knows his partner isn't as experienced as him, so he'll be more assertive right away, where he might have deferred to Zee in his own end early on."

(Another example of McAvoy's improved poise in the O-zone is this sequence against Washington on Jan. 30, in which he activated off the blue line, skated down low behind the Caps' net and fed Marchand for a tap-in tally from the crease.)

But what separates McAvoy for plenty other top defensemen in the league is not the offensive production or the workload he takes on — but rather his knack for also suppressing chances down the other end of the ice while on his shifts.

No luck for opposition