By the time the Boston Bruins and owner Charles Jacobs stepped up to the podium at First Niagara Center in Buffalo to announce the team’s first draft choice with the 14th overall selection last Friday, it was all but fait accompli that one of Boston University defenseman Charlie McAvoy or Boston University recruit defender Dante Fabbro out of Penticton was going to be the name called.
Both were available, both were right-shot defensemen, both represented not only what many would consider the top talent available at that spot, but were also filled a clear organizational need for the B’s.
He stumbled over the words, but the younger Jacobs, who was born in Buffalo as the son of Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs- CEO of the Western N.Y. Delaware North Corporation- called McAvoy’s name and after a season of frustration and an epic meltdown over the last 30 days of a year in which the B’s had largely overachieved before crashing to earth in March and early April, Boston had their man.
“Charlie’s one of those players who can do a little bit of everything,” one NHL scout for an Eastern Conference team told the Scouting Post in Buffalo before the draft. “Some are talking top-10 for him, and I could see that. He has the talent for it. More realistically, I see him going around 15-20, but that’s not a knock on him. He’s got that wide body and a natural knack for getting up in the play. With his skating he can push it at both ends, and that’s so important in the NHL these days. He’s also a bit of a character, too. He totally rocked our interview…we’re not in a position to get him, but we all kind of looked at each other when he left and thought, that’s a good kid right there.”
McAvoy is a nice fit in Boston with his blue collar roots. He grew up on Long Island the son of a plumber and fireman who was a natural at hockey but came from a large family, and finances did not permit him to continue playing the sport at the higher levels. A staunch NY Rangers fan, hockey remained his favorite after moving onto other sports like football and baseball, but he vowed to do what it took to allow his son to stay in hockey if that’s what Charlie desired.
That desire took McAvoy through the Long Island Gulls and New Jersey Rockets minor hockey programs before he landed a spot with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Team USA moved to Plymouth, Mich. before the start of the 2015-16 hockey season). While there, he emerged as a legitimate first-round NHL option, and carried that potential forward to fruition in his very own Empire State on June 24, 2016.
Born on December 21, 1997, the younger McAvoy missed the Rangers’ first and only Stanley Cup victory since 1940 by three-plus years. He was a Broadway Blueshirts fanatic whose first favorite player was Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch. To this day, Leetch remains the player he most tries to emulate in his playing style. At the rate he’s going, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that McAvoy could develop into a successful NHL star with similar attributes.
“I’m at a loss for words; it’s an unbelievable feeling and I’m so happy to be a part of this,” McAvoy said after the selection and he made his way into the bowels of the arena to meet the press for the first time as a member of the Boston Bruins. “I’ve gotten close with (the Bruins) this year and I’m sure my friends at home are happy, but I’m kind of cutting the ties with New York sports. Boston’s an unbelievable city and it’s a great place with great people and I’m happy to be staying there.”
Although not tall, McAvoy has a thick, strong build. His BU coach, David Quinn, spoke to the Scouting Post (TSP) after the selection briefly and credited the newest Boston first-rounder with putting in a lot of weight room work to get himself into better game shape after arriving, and said that the 18-year-old made significant progress as a player in all facets from the beginning of the 2015-16 season until the end. He also talked of Charlie’s “magnetic personality” and that players want to spend time with him.
“That was something that I worked on a lot- the defensive side of the puck,” McAvoy said. “It was something I needed to grow in and get better in and I feel like I made great strides throughout the year.”
McAvoy is a natural offensive talent. In his own words, he sees himself as a threat to be effective at both ends.
“I’m a two-way defenseman,” said McAvoy. “I can play the offensive side of the puck and that’s something I like to do, but I’ve grown a lot on the defensive side of the game.”
During a pre-draft podcast, TSP likened McAvoy to one of the pirates of old who liked to set his hair on fire before plundering a hapless vessel. He’s a classic push-the-pace, aggressive defender who likes to lead the rush and has the skating and puck skills to carry the puck out of his end on his own and can make all of the key outlet passing and long leads. There are times where his riverboat gambler mentality will get him out of position, but McAvoy has the natural hockey sense to learn from that and with continued strong coaching at BU by Quinn, Albie O’Connell and Scott Young– he’s sure to get better with his reads and decisions.
His defense partner, former BU captain and future Bruin Matt Grzelcyk, had left-seat ride with McAvoy all year, watching the 17-year-old arrive on campus last summer to complete his academic requirements so he could play in the NCAA while other peers remained in high school. That maturity and self-discipline to see it through impressed Grzelcyk enough, but it was McAvoy’s poise and ability that elevated him as the season went on.
EDIT- I managed to exchange texts with Grzelcyk and this is what he has to say about his former teammate and fellow Bruins prospect:
“Playing with Charlie was an awesome experience,” Grzelcyk, who just concluded an outstanding four-year career at BU (two years as captain) after being a third-round pick by his hometown B’s in 2012, said. “Even though he was the youngest player in college hockey last year he was mature both on and off the ice as soon as he stepped foot on campus.
“He’s a great skater who’s tough to knock of the puck and was able to add a bit of an edge to his game; in my opinion, it made his impact on the game even greater. Over the course of the year, I believe he was best when he was able to simplify his game and allow his skill to take over. He was an unbelievable D partner to have, and an even better teammate. I could not be happier to see him picked by the Bruins.”
Now, with his first collegiate season under his belt (he scored three goals, but added an impressive 22 assists in 37 games, which was more than Noah Hanifin had a year ago), he’s looking to kick things up a notch on Commonwealth Ave, after the Terriers took a disappointing step back last year.
“I was joking with (Don) Sweeney, I said- Grizzy and JFK- they can’t get rid of me now,” he said. “They’re unbelievable players and great people. It’s going to be exciting to go through all this stuff with them.”
McAvoy’s national team coach, Don Granato, who left the NTDP to join his brother Tony as an assistant with the University of Wisconsin, talked to TSP about his former defenseman and said that McAvoy has one of those even-keeled yet outgoing personalities- teammates just gravitate to him because of who he is and how he conducts himself. He’s a 1st-round talent and a 1st-round person, he said, citing that McAvoy is one of the most loyal players of any he has coached in his career. “Anything we told him, he soaked up like a sponge,” said Granato. “He wanted to get better, and that kind of loyalty and dedication in a player is something that helps you go the extra mile as a coach.”
That loyalty might have been part of a small theater of the absurd that cropped up Friday night when someone got ahold of a tweet that McAvoy sent in May, 2013 at age 15. For those who might have been under a rock at that time, the Bruins were in the second round of the playoffs against McAvoy’s Rangers and had just taken a 3-0 series lead (they would win it in five games on their way to the Stanley Cup final against Chicago). The die-hard Broadway Blueshirts-supporting teen sent out a tweet expressing his hatred for all things Bruins. It’s a sad commentary when people are so thin-skinned and petty that more than three years later, some were actually holding that against him. If you’re one of those people- do yourself a favor- look in the mirror and give your head a shake. You need some perspective in life, and shame on TSN and any other media outlets who picked up on a teenager’s tweet and made it a circus sideshow on the biggest night of his young life.
“Not necessarily,” was McAvoy’s attempt at diplomacy when a reporter asked him point blank if he “hated” all Boston sports teams growing up (he even chuckled before responding). “You grow up- kinda- I guess you’re taught not to like them (Boston sports) because of the rivalry but I’ve got a Red Sox hat now, so that’s the first step and I’ve got this Bruins jersey, so that’s pretty cool. I’ll just keep growing.”
He then demonstrated what his coaches and teammates talk about when they say what a good, fun guy he is to have in the room, showing one last bastion of loyalty to his New York Giants:
“I don’t know if I can be a Pats fan,” he quipped with perfect comedic timing, drawing an instant reaction from the Boston media (pro tip- we thought it was funny). “But we’ll see. Give it a little a time.”
The Bruins, for their part, could have opted for the more defensively-polished and serious Fabbro. TSP was not shy in saying that Fabbro was the higher-rated option, but at the same time- the margin between the two was razor thin. The British Columbia-bred Fabbro went 17th overall to the Nashville Predators, and will join McAvoy at BU next season. We said it all along- if the Bruins had a choice between the two, it was win-win either way. McAvoy has a higher offensive upside, but Fabbro was a little better defensively. Both are winners, so if you felt like you were sold on Fabbro over McAvoy, just consider that perhaps playing in Boston’s back yard tipped the scales.
With four first-round picks either at BU or headed there next year (Clayton Keller, McAvoy, Fabbro and Kieffer Bellows), McAvoy said that they all got together for lunch on Friday before the draft and that he can’t wait to get going again. Assuming everyone arrives on schedule (there is talk of Keller perhaps playing in the OHL, as the Windsor Spitfires own his major junior rights), the Terriers are poised to be the beasts of the Hockey East.
“I’m excited to be Charlie’s teammate and excited about joining that BU tradition,” Fabbro told TSP before the draft. “Coach Quinn and Albie and everyone has built something special and I’m just looking forward to being a part of it and doing what I can to help the Terriers win.”
As for the Bruins, they admitted to having a tough choice between the two players, and in hindsight- it might have been easier had one or the other come off the board before 14. In the end, they simply liked McAvoy a little more, and Bruins chief scout Keith Gretzky made mention that playing well against guys as much as six years older than McAvoy was one of many factors that tilted the B’s towards him.
“We’re excited with the skill set and the upside he has as as player with and without the puck,” Sweeney told assembled reporters Friday night. “He’s a multi-tool player; we feel like he has offensive upside that will continue to get better. You know, he steps into the college game and you can track where he was in the first half of the season, second half and understand that he got acclimated.
“People had spoken about him maybe to try to do a little too much at times, and he’s playing against guys that are four or five years older in some cases and really handled himself very well. He’s a very physical player at times- we’d actually need to back him off, but it’s another very good quality he has. He can puck-separate; he finds the middle of the ice and as a matter of fact, ‘JFK’ spoke highly of that in terms of a centerman wants the puck, and he wants it in motion when he’s going up ice and I think today, it’s paramount for defensemen to be able to establish more than one option; be able to recognize it, be able to execute it and I think Charlie does it well.”
In the end, McAvoy’s selection infused some excitement at a time the team needed it. He’s headed back to BU for at least one more season, but with his advanced strength and physical maturity, don’t be surprised to see the Bruins bring him out as early as next spring when his season ends. It wouldn’t constitute the impossible to see him turn pro sooner than that depending on how he looks at the B’s development camp the week of July 11, but having him return to school for one more NCAA campaign looks more realistic at this stage. If he takes the anticipated step forward, Boston won’t wait long to get him into their system and see if he can contribute to the NHL roster sooner rather than later.
Even with the optimistic outlook, however, McAvoy knows that the work is only beginning and that he can’t afford to take anything for granted. He’s got some work to do conditioning-wise and one can only imagine that noted Boston strength coach John Whitesides is eagerly awaiting the chance to sink his teeth into McAvoy and tease even more performance out of the youngster’s impressive natural physical package.
“You can’t get caught up in it because this is one day,” he said of the excitement of being a first-round NHL draft pick. “I’m going to enjoy this with my family and my friends but I’ll be at school Monday and I’ll be working out in the morning and I’ll be back in class and that’s really where it all starts: growing and continuing to grow, and getting ready to play in the NHL every single day.”