Throughout the early portion of Charlie McAvoy’s career, veteran captain Zdeno Chara has been the consistent defensive partner lining up alongside him. Over the past three seasons, no Boston Bruins defensive pairing has logged more minutes.
And for a while, it made sense. With McAvoy labeled as the crown jewel of the Bruins’ defensive future upon breaking into the league, it made sense to stick him on a pairing with one of the most respected veteran defensemen in the NHL. A great student requires a great teacher, you know? And while their playing styles don’t exactly complement each other, the two have generally worked pretty well together in the past, so, why not?
However, if the early portion of the season is any indication, the days of the McAvoy-Chara pairing may be better off left behind. Head coach Bruce Cassidy’s lineup changes over the past few games imply that a reunion might be in order. McAvoy may — and in my opinion should — reunite with an old friend on the blue line — that’s Matt Grzelcyk, his former partner at Boston University. The two had the chance to play together several times last week, and there’s an indication that won’t be a one-time move. Here’s why it might work.
McAvoy’s Slow Start
In the first three seasons of his career, McAvoy has set the bar very high for himself. In his rookie season, the Long Beach, NY native put up 32 points in 63 games (.508 points per game) while establishing himself as a capable two-way defender. Last season, he followed up a fantastic rookie performance with 28 points in 54 games (.518 points per game).
Ideally, you’d like to see that number continue to climb over the next few seasons. And while it’s certainly early in the season, McAvoy’s offensive production has been underwhelming. Through 17 games, McAvoy has posted just four assists and has yet to score.
Perhaps even more concerning, depending on how you choose to evaluate players, is that his shot production has also drastically dipped so far this season. That indicates that McAvoy hasn’t just been bit with the bad luck bug, he’s actually producing fewer chances. This is a slight cause for concern because unless those numbers start to climb, his production is unlikely to improve.
Surely this isn’t purely the result of his pairing with Chara. But, the Bruins should be willing to make changes to kick-start their young stud, particularly giving him more freedom to work in the offensive zone. Shifting of the defensive pairings could be just what McAvoy needs to get the motor running.
Realizing McAvoy and Grzecyk’s Skill Sets
Line combinations are all about getting the best out of your players, and in this case, you can make a fair argument that the best way to get results from McAvoy and Grzelcyk is by putting them together.
For starters, the two former Terriers have a similar playing style. They’re both capable, two-way defensemen who are reliable in their own zone but are especially valuable making plays up the ice. By moving McAvoy to Grzelcyk’s side, the two can feed off of each other’s playmaking abilities and two-way threat.
McAvoy, for example, is excellent at carrying the puck up the ice. When he retrieves the puck in his own end and identifies the path of least resistance to the opposing net, he excels at turning on the motor and moving up ice. However, with a slower Chara that can lead to problems, as an offensive-zone turnover that leads to an opposing rush can leave the 42-year-old veteran defenseman in a tough spot, given his worsening mobility. Rather than being concerned about leaving a slower-footed Chara behind when moving up the ice, moving McAvoy to Grzelcyk’s side allows McAvoy some more freedom to push the pace up the ice.
The same could be said for Grzelcyk, though to a slightly different effect. To keep this one simple, Grzelcyk would probably be more comfortable pushing further offensively with McAvoy behind him to back him up rather than Connor Clifton, who’s less experienced and doesn’t have quite the same defensive poise as his teammate wearing number 73.
Cassidy seems interested in making the switch for both of those reasons — to free up McAvoy a bit more, which will allow him to use his skill set more effectively, and to settle things down for Clifton a bit.
“Well, we see it more equitable if Clifton goes with Zee,” Cassidy said last week, per the Boston Sports Journal. “We’re just gonna give it a go. It matches the size factor a little better. We always thought Grizz and Clifton were two good players, but are they ideal players (together)? This allows Charlie to free up a little more, probably on the offensive side of things. Maybe not get the heavy matchup every time over the boards. Because Zee will definitely be matched up, that’s his strength. We’ll see with each game how long it lasts, but that’s the thinking.”
As Cassidy mentioned, moving McAvoy off of Chara’s side also gives McAvoy more favorable match-ups. With Chara’s lock-down ability being used primarily against the top players from the opposing team, McAvoy has consistently been battling against the enemy’s most dangerous opponents. By moving McAvoy to Grzelcyk’s pairing, the two would get more match-ups with bottom-nine opponents, offering more space to make plays while risking less in the defensive zone.
At the very least, lining up McAvoy and Grzelcyk alongside one another is worth experimenting with for a while. Don’t be surprised if it’s a great fit.