I’m back from a trip to Canada and the opportunity to watch The Tragically Hip perform live in London, Ontario. More on that later.
I did get to see the televised action of USA games from the national evaluation camp in Plymouth, and the Americans closed out the event with a sound thumping of Team Canada Saturday.
If you’re a Boston Bruins fan and paying attention to the organization’s prospects and player development efforts, you can’t help but come away optimistic for what could be coming, especially at the defense position. One player had a standout, exciting performance that drew raves. The other USA defender was not as visible, but earned good marks for being solid and opportunistic. Both players, drafted in the first and second rounds in Buffalo, are giving Boston fans something to talk about.
The team’s top choice in June had a standout camp from start to finish: one NHL scout texted the Scouting Post after the first day of on-ice sessions on July 30 to say that Charlie McAvoy was the “best player on the ice,” and the 14th overall selection out of Boston University did nothing but reinforce that view as the week went on.
The Long Island native isn’t cut from the mold of steely-eyed killers as you apply them to hockey players (we’re talking Scott Stevens here in terms of the king of steely-eyed killers on the ice), known more as an even-keeled, fun guy to have in the room. He’s a hockey playing surfer, who might have a little more Jeff Spicoli in him than one might think (Aloha, Mr. Hand!) and we don’t mean that in a bad way. However, he backed up his reputation for being all business on the ice by playing an intense, physical, two-way skill game all week. McAvoy put an exclamation point on that with a slobber-knocker of a hit he put on 2015 1st-rounder and Panthers prospect Lawson Crouse, catching the power forward at the USA blue line with his head down and drilling him with a hard but clean hit.
McAvoy is an excellent skater who accelerates quickly in just a few powerful strides that he’s able to generate thanks to a blocky, strong build. He’s not all that tall, but with his wide body and thickness through the torso and lower trunk, McAvoy demonstrated that he’s an A-grade physical player who uses his lower center of gravity to bolster the physical aspect of his game. All of this is all fine and well, because the offensive dimension McAvoy brings to the table is what made him a top-15 selection in the first place.
We’ve knocked him for being at times too aggressive in the way he pushes the pace and gets himself deep into the offensive zone, but pulling back on the reins of said player is easier to do if someone has the natural skill and ability McAvoy does- you can’t coach what he has, and as he matures and refines his game going forward, watch for him to take significant strides offensively. Don’t judge a book by its cover- he might not have a rock-hard physique, but ask Crouse about him, and you can bet he’ll keep his head on a swivel going forward.
One NHL scout had this to say about McAvoy before the draft, and while it might have sounded effusive in its praise then, you can now understand what the veteran talent evaluator was talking about:
“The top defensemen in this draft are hard to separate and McAvoy might end up being the best. He would’ve torn apart the OHL and produced as much as guys like (Mikhail) Sergachev and (Jakob) Chychrun, in my opinion. He’s an NHL athlete and skater; a thick, strong, and powerful kid who has great speed and skating ability. Competitive and passionate about hockey. Can make the first pass and is good offensively off the rush but he’s just average on the PP and lack of height will limit him defensively in the NHL. Doesn’t have Werenski’s size or PP ability from last year.”
If McAvoy can improve his power play skills and production, the sky could be the limit for him.
He’s slated to go back to Boston University for his sophomore season, and it would be surprising to see the Bruins try and sign him now and pull him out of the NCAA (though not impossible, especially after the way he’s performed at Bruins development and the USA evaluation camps). Realistically- he’ll play for the Terriers in 2016-17, but don’t be surprised to see the B’s come calling in the spring and we might even see McAvoy get some NHL games to finish out the year. He’s probably good enough to handle it, but first things first and we’ll see how the season goes.
Here’s a draft weekend video of McAvoy interviewed by Edmonton colleague Tom Gazzolla:
Boston’s other USA defenseman- Ryan Lindgren– didn’t draw the same kind of attention McAvoy did, but the NTDP U18 captain from a season ago stood out to those who watched him and can see how the little things he excels at add up to make a pretty impressive player in his own right.
Like McAvoy, Lindgren isn’t all that tall, and he doesn’t have the same wide build, either. However, he has a knack for lining up guys for kill shots and knowing when to give and take hits to make plays. A competitive little son of a gun, Lindgren earns the respect of coaches for his intensity and how hard he plays. The kicker is his personal discipline; he’s someone who plays right on the edge as a mobile, physical defender who is better than his own end than on offense, but doesn’t cross the line very often and hurt his team with bad penalties.
We got a good, hard look at Lindgren and he plays such a polished, refined defensive game already at age 18. His gap control is excellent and he instinctively understands when to activate at the right times and when to back off. His stick positioning is sound and he’s got real nice skating range and closing ability- this is a guy who is tough to beat wide because he skates so well in all directions, but who can also use his natural speed to jump up into the play and support the rush.
A lot of players talk about being two-way defensemen- Lindgren actually has the skills and head to pull it off.
Factor in that he’s a natural leader who was universally hailed by his teammates and opponents alike as a team captain they would follow anywhere and/or respect as an opponent, and he looks to be a top-four fixture at some point on the left side in Boston when he gets some time in at the University of Minnesota, possibly followed up by a stint in the minors.
NHL Prospects posted this highlight video of Lindgren from a season ago:
It’s hard to resist the urge to start penciling in players like McAvoy and Lindgren into future Boston lineups, but as of right now, rushing the shiny new toys into action is probably not the way the team is looking at things. Lindgren will likely follow a longer timeline to the NHL than McAvoy will, but there is reason for excitement.
That doesn’t help the Bruins in 2016-17, but it also means that the team need not panic and sell the farm to acquire overpriced veteran defenders with a limited return on investment. This pair, when added to some of the other impressive talents like Brandon Carlo, Jakub Zboril, Rob O’Gara, Matt Grzelcyk and Jeremy Lauzon for starters, underscore the optimism and hope for a brighter blue line future.
Zach Senyshyn, who missed Bruins development camp after recovering from mono, got some limited time in with Canada, but didn’t get much of an opportunity to shine. His time will come, and after a 45-goal campaign with the Soo Greyhounds a year ago, he’s still very much in the mix for a spot with Team Canada in the 2017 World Jr. tourney, but he was not at 100 percent. Given the mediocre showing of the rest of the team, especially against Team USA in the finale, you can bet that the coaches will want to see more of what Senyshyn can do in December, not less.
Trent Frederic was also at camp with Team USA and he’s got some interesting potential, even if he’s still raw and isn’t going to bring much in the way of flash. He’s got good size and will do honest gruntwork to gain and maintain possession. He doesn’t have much in the way of high-end skills, however- and that will always be the rub when fans debate his selection at 29th overall. Simply put- there were more talented options on the board where he was chosen, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will prove to be better players in the long run.
Jeremy Lauzon was also in camp for Canada, and we had limited exposure to him. He’ll likely get lost in the sauce of the excitement surrounding McAvoy for the time being, but watch for Lauzon to be more comfortable and confident at Boston’s main camp in September and he’s primed for another big year of junior hockey before he’ll turn pro and help Providence out if his QMJHL season ends in time to get some AHL work next spring.
Last but not least-
Sincere condolences on the passing of ESPN analyst John Saunders, who passed away at age 61, the network announced yesterday.
He was very clearly a hockey guy, and I always enjoyed his takes and humble persona whenever he was on the air. ESPN is not a hockey network, so he was one of the few talents that brought much-needed knowledge of and passion for the game whenever he had a chance to talk about the NHL or hockey at other levels.
Saunders will be missed and he got much in the way of respect and acknowledgements yesterday by so many who knew and loved him.