John Tomase

McAvoy has been Bruins' biggest disappointment of the playoffs

The team's best defenseman has been the opposite through nine postseason games.

NBC Universal, Inc.

The greatest teams in Bruins history were all backboned by superstar defensemen. The incomparable Bobby Orr remains the archetype, and his 1970s squads won two Stanley Cups. Ray Bourque followed him into the Hall of Fame after guiding the B's to a pair of finals. Zdeno Chara raised that giant chalice himself in 2011 and one day will join them in Toronto, perhaps after running a marathon.

The heir apparent was supposed to be Charlie McAvoy, which we can all agree is absurd and unfair, since the aforementioned trio combined for 14 Norris Trophies and earned spots on their respective all-decade teams. They're among the best ever to patrol the blue line.

By that impossible standard, McAvoy is just a guy. But in the more reasonable context of the 2024 Bruins, he's The Guy. Or at least he's supposed to be.

Somebody might want to tell him.

While David Pastrnak took deserved lumps for disappearing until the last second of Game 7 vs. the Leafs, McAvoy has easily been the biggest disappointment of the postseason. The spotlight will only intensify after a disastrous Game 2 vs. the Panthers on Wednesday night.

Only four defensemen are signed for more than McAvoy's $76 million, but he's suddenly struggling to make the simplest plays. Pretty high up in the job description is "clear the puck," but McAvoy keeps committing alarming turnovers in his own end, a problem that dates back to last postseason.

It caught up with him in Wednesday's 6-1 loss to the Panthers, when Florida scored the go-ahead goal after McAvoy whiffed on a weak clearance attempt and then compounded the error by losing his stick.

He marked Florida's Aleksander Barkov like he believed he could conjure one into existence a la the Green Lantern, but attempting a poke check without a utensil is not, in fact, effective. Barkov buried the loose puck while McAvoy flopped to the ice in a moment that will not make his personal highlight reel.

If sloppy clearances were his only mistakes, they would be deadly enough, but McAvoy has developed a perplexing habit that keeps costing Jeremy Swayman. One of McAvoy's responsibilities is clearing traffic in front of the net, ideally without (A) screening his goalie, or (B) presenting himself as a big blinking deflection target. His failures on both counts have played a direct role in too many pivotal postseason goals.

For instance, he tipped the tying score past Swayman with the goalie pulled and under a minute left in last year's Game 7 vs. Florida. Last week, he turned a harmless wrister from the boards into Toronto's Game 6 winner, earning a "Dude, WTF?!?" look from Swayman after the puck deflected past him off of McAvoy's chest.

It was hard to keep track of Florida's many goals on Wednesday night, but Gustav Forsling's killer with under a second left in the second period came with McAvoy once again camped in Swayman's face.

If only he could screen opposing goalies so effectively.

So what gives? The kneejerk assumption is that he's playing hurt, but that's true of most guys at this juncture. More concerning is how he keeps yielding the puck in the face of negligible pressure. That same goal Toronto's William Nylander banked off McAvoy in Game 6 came after the latter needlessly iced the puck to force a faceoff in his own zone. Maybe it's because he thought teammate Mason Lohrei had just been boarded, but it was still a huge miscue.

An injury would be convenient, yet it doesn't explain the larger trend. McAvoy is now a minus-3 in 87 postseason games. Chara was a plus-49, Bourque a plus-27, and Orr a plus-60 (in only 74 games!). If we make some more reasonable comparisons, teammate Hampus Lindholm is a plus-11 over his career, while predecessor Johnny Boychuk checked in at plus-20 during his six years in black and gold.

Plus-minus is obviously a context-dependent stat, but you'd like your best defenseman at least to break even.

McAvoy's mistakes have been so pronounced, they've made the performance of rookie Mason Lohrei even more startling. The rangy 23-year-old keeps improving by the game. He's confident wheeling into the neutral zone, he's got a huge reach at 6-5, and he's a threat when he jumps into the offense. He scored one of the prettiest goals of the playoffs in Monday's upset when he picked the top corner from a tough angle.

You'd love to see that kind of play out of McAvoy, but instead you hold your breath every time he handles the puck. The Bruins have every right to expect more for $9.5 million a year, and if McAvoy doesn't start giving it to them, their season will end against Florida with another dejected handshake line.

Contact Us