By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It took just 23 seconds for the Bruins to pull rookie Brandon Carlo off the top defense pairing with Zdeno Chara on Dec. 7 in Washington.
Capitals forward Justin Williams scored on a rush with Carlo backed way into the slot and the coaching staff made the switch to Adam McQuaid on Chara’s right side.
Carlo had 26 games of NHL experience to that point but there were still some challenges for which he wasn’t ready. He recovered and played the rest of the season with Chara and there were only a handful of times the Bruins had to move him out and plug a veteran into his spot.
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy was running the defense as an assistant coach under Claude Julien when the above-mentioned game took place. Cassidy will have to keep that game in mind and be ready to make a change in a snap if the coach opts to start rookie Charlie McAvoy with Chara from the outset of the first-round playoff series with Ottawa, as the two were paired in practice on Tuesday.
All indications are the 19-year-old, weeks removed from playing at Boston University, is ready to make the jump to the NHL and he’s going to make his debut in Game 1 against the Senators. Trying to find someone affiliated with the Bruins willing to express doubt that McAvoy should be thrown into such a tumultuous situation is like trying to find out the details of Torey Krug’s injury. Ironically, we might not even be talking about McAvoy as an NHLer if it were not for Krug’s injury.
And there’s the rub. McAvoy is a high-end talent and potentially the Bruins’ No. 1 for their post-Chara era. But if the Bruins were so eager to get him into their lineup after he left school, why didn’t they elevate him to the NHL right off the bat? Krug and Carlo’s injuries clearly accelerated McAvoy’s ascent to the NHL, and Cassidy might see fit to push the kid to the head of the class as part of Boston’s No. 1 pair.
“We like the young guys with Zee; Zee likes to be the big brother,” Cassidy said. “I think if we’re speaking with Charlie, he’ll complement Zee getting back on the pucks and help him with the transition game. I think that’s where Carlo’s been good. Those young guys, they’re able to get back on pucks. And I think Zee enjoys tutoring the young guys.”
Chara has mentored young defensemen on the Boston back line dating all the way back to the brief Boston career of Matt Lashoff. Some combinations have worked; others haven’t. Dougie Hamilton was a strong fit to Chara’s right for a while, but then he got “uppity.” Carlo had a solid year, for a teenager, playing with Chara and not costing the Bruins their first trip to the playoffs in three years.
For all his accolades in college and the skill set that made the Bruins salivate over him from before they used the 14th pick in the draft on him last June, McAvoy will have a lot to prove in a short time when he’s tasked with slowing down Kyle Turris, Derick Brassard and other high-caliber Ottawa offensive weapons. He was also given top-unit power-play time at practice. This all could be unfair to ask of a kid who still delayed his signing in order to take his sophomore exams.
Cassidy acknowledged the unknowns that come along with starting a player’s NHL career in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“We haven’t done a lot of high-end competition, 1-on-1 battles, simply because at this time of the year we want to be as fresh as possible,” Cassidy said. “So that’s the area that until you see him in the game against men that will play itself out. I think he’s going to move the puck well, read plays well, see the ice. I don’t think that changes because of his age or what level he’s at. It’s playing against men and time and space situations we’re just going to have to see where he’s at on the fly.”
To his credit, McAvoy has curiosity and communication skills to go along with his hockey acumen.
“I have no problem going up to a guy and saying, ‘Hey, what are we doing here?’ And [Chara’s] more than happy to tell me,” McAvoy said. “He embraces that role of helping young guys like myself get better. And I’m just very thankful that it’s amazing having a guy like that on my team.”
Maybe McAvoy will play so well the Bruins have to find another spot for Carlo when he returns. Maybe he just holds his own the way Hamilton did when thrust into a role in the 2013 playoffs. But it should be noted that everyone has been calling McAvoy a “future Drew Doughty” not a present-day one. Playing No. 1 pair in the NHL with no NHL experience may be too big of an assignment.
Cassidy has shown no tentativeness about juggling forward lines when things haven’t looked right even a shift or two into a game. And he showed a few times with Carlo how quick the hook can come on defense.
If McAvoy plays with Chara to start this series, the Bruins have to expect the worst while hoping for the best and can’t get too married to the idea of playing the kid in a prime-time role if it’s going to cost the team. No matter what, it’ll be a learning experience for McAvoy.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.