In recent years, we’ve gained a much better understanding of how aging curves work in the NHL: Young players typically take some time to develop, then peak around their mid-twenties. Defensemen typically take a year two longer. Older players tend to slip in their early thirties, then bottom out hard.
So what happens when you pair up a 19 year-old with a 40 year-old and send them over the boards as much as possible?
Well, it turns out Charlie McAvoy is not a typical teenaged defenseman, and Zdeno Chara is not a typical old guy. Since being put together, the pair has served as an all-purpose powerhouse for head coach Bruce Cassidy and the Bruins. They’ve compiled favorable stats across the board while being matched up with opponents’ best players. The Bruins give up 3.78 fewer shots per 60 with them on the ice, and they take 3.1 shots more. They produce major advantages in scoring chances, expected goals, and most importantly, goal differential.
To start the year, Cassidy played it safe by giving McAvoy his first NHL minutes on second and third pair duty with Kevan Miller, then Torey Krug. He kept last year’s shutdown pairing of Chara and Brandon Carlo together. It only took until the seventh game of the season for the kid to get bumped up to top pairing duty. He hasn’t looked back since, with season totals of 15 points and an average of 23:37 played per game.
McAvoy’s ice time is becoming something of a legend in its own right. He’s played 41.13% of the Bruins’ even strength minutes, the second most in the league. That’s remarkable in any circumstance, never mind for a kid on a decent team who hadn’t played a regular season game in the NHL until just now. That usage alone speaks highly of his standing with the team: He leads the defense corps in even strength minutes per game when tied and when trailing, the latter by a mile; he’s virtually even with Chara with the lead; he plays on the second power play unit; and chips in on the penalty kill some too. I suspect he’ll do more penalty killing if the Bruins intend to keep Matt Grzelcyk around.
You don’t need me to tell you that McAvoy can make things happen offensively. He came through Boston University with a reputation as an offensive river gambler. Suffice to say that he provides a bunch of high danger chances that Chara and Carlo never could have dreamed of. But it’s hard to overstate how effective he’s been on the defensive side of things.
Here’s a neat way to look at:
See that big blue swath on the right side of the “With McAvoy” map? That’s McAvoy shutting down his side. The “Without McAvoy” map shows every other right side defenseman on the team giving up much more.
For comparison, here’s “defensive defenseman” Brandon Carlo:
Who’s the offensive specialist now?
Meanwhile, Chara just keeps on going. A 40 year-old shouldn’t be able to play the minutes that he does, and yet he does. There was once a narrative that he was washed up and couldn’t handle the best competition in the league anymore. That’s fading into the background, as it should. Chara remains one of the best shutdown defenders in the game.
He still plays too many minutes for anybody’s comfort (23:57 per game), but how do you take minutes from him when continues to play such a vital role? And (I feel like I ask this question a lot) who would take those minutes? The Bruins simply don’t have another defenseman capable of elevating their game to that level, especially on the left side.
One mistake Monday in Nashville notwithstanding, the Chara/McAvoy pairing has been rock solid. They’ve been the most important driver of the team’s defensive improvement, no matter how you feel about the goaltending situation.
For now, the Bruins should count their blessings that they’ve got a go-to top pairing: a teenager and an old man that are defying all the odds.