The Boston Bruins have a long tradition of dominant defensemen. Eddie Shore started the tradition during the team’s infancy as an Original Six club. Bobby Orr was next on the list, not only carrying the Bruins to Stanley Cups, but completely reinventing the game for defensemen with his offensive proficiency. Following Orr, Ray Bourque took up the mantle, leading the Bruins from the late ’80s until 2000 and climbing to fourth all-time in assists. Zdeno Chara, the most imposing defensemen in Bruins’ history followed Bourque. He captured a Norris Trophy in 2009 and is one of the key figures in the culture change that ultimately led to the Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup. Each of these defensemen has one thing in common, league hardware confirming their status.
Next in line for this title is Charlie McAvoy. The 2016 first-round pick has firmly established himself as one the league’s top shutdown defensemen. While he has not yet won a league award, he is well on his way. This season he is a dark horse to sneak into the Norris Trophy conversation.
Norris Trophy Criteria
Before addressing McAvoy’s case, it is important to understand what the Norris Trophy represents. According to NHL.com, “The James Norris Memorial Trophy is an annual award given ‘to the defensive player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.’” That last part is what is key, great all-round ability. In some recent years, the Norris has gone to the defenseman who has produced the greatest offensive stat line. That is all well and good, offensive numbers are generally easier to sort out than defensive impact, but that methodology misses the essence of the award. To win the Norris you must be dominant in all facets of the game, not just the offensive zone.
Related: 2022-23 Norris Trophy Tracker
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This distinction is what is most important to McAvoy’s candidacy. While players like Erik Karlsson can have their goals and assists jump off the page, defensively he is still leaving much to be desired. Similarly, you could turn to Devon Toews, an incredible defensive-leaning defenseman, but someone who is not providing the same level of offense as a Norris winner should produce. McAvoy is the perfect blend between the two.
McAvoy in the Offensive Zone
Starting away from his own net, let’s examine McAvoy’s season and how he stacks up with some of the other Norris contenders.
At .88 points per game, McAvoy is making key contributions to the NHL’s best offense. He has split his point total evenly between power-play time and even strength, with 15 and 14 points, respectively. This balance is key, showing he is impacting the game when it is arguably at its most difficult, with five opposing skaters occupying the ice to cut down passing lanes or get in the way of shooting lanes.
Of the four goals McAvoy has tallied this season, three have come at even strength. As mentioned above, tallying points at even strength is more difficult than on a power play. By potting 75 percent of his goals at this more difficult segment, he is making his greatest contributions at the hardest times, a factor that should be respected when it comes to voting for the Norris.
McAvoy in the Defensive Zone
While these offensive numbers make a strong case, the foundation of McAvoy’s dominance stems from the defensive zone. He is a shut-down defenseman, who established himself in that role last season, and has continued to flourish this year.
The Bruins as a whole are an incredibly well-rounded team. They have the largest difference between goals for and goals against in the league. Therefore, it is no surprise, McAvoy has the same impressive gap. When he is on the ice, the Bruins are expected to score just over four goals per 60 minutes. In that same span, while he is on the ice, Bruins’ opponents are expected to score 1.7 goals per 60. There’s no need to even turn to a calculator to see how impressive that gap is.
On top of his offensive outlook and power-play production, McAvoy also averages over two minutes per game on the penalty kill, eating up physical minutes. To find himself out there for this amount of time is a statement of trust from Jim Montgomery and his staff, and further endorsement of McAvoy’s defensive ability. In over 70 minutes of shorthanded time, opponents have only scored four goals. This resistance, while playing a man down, has been a focal point of the Bruins’ season, and McAvoy is a central part of this unit’s success.
On top of this shorthanded ability, McAvoy has shown a willingness to engage in the physical side of the game. He averages 1.78 blocks per game, with another 1.33 hits per game. These numbers may not lead the league, but they are important contributions, highlighting McAvoy’s well-roundedness. He is not one to cheat out of his own end or let his defensive play slack in the name of offense. At the same token, he is not going to mitigate his offense to ensure his defensive numbers hold up. He is a complete player with high hockey IQ, leading him to be one of the best defensemen in the league.
Will McAvoy Win?
Honestly, it’s unlikely. McAvoy’s fellow Long Island native Adam Fox, who has already won the award once, is having an even better season with the New York Rangers. He will be difficult to overtake. Last season’s winner, Cale Makar, is primed to be a yearly favorite for this award, even with his current “down” season. That being said, McAvoy is still a force to be reckoned with and deserves to be in the discussion for the award.
If he had not missed the first month of the season following offseason surgery, he would be an even stronger candidate. Nobody knows what the rest of the season holds, but if McAvoy continues his brilliant play, and Fox or Makar falter, there is a lane that the Bruins’ blueliner could occupy and ride to a win. With his ability to play in all situations and at an elite level, McAvoy is the embodiment of a Norris Trophy defenseman. Now it is up to the voters to acknowledge that.
Vince Reilly covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Vince graduated from Grinnell College with a Bachelors in History and Political Science and earned a Masters in Sports Administration from Belmont University. He has worked in the Predators Front Office on Analytics and Operations, with Major League Baseball in Replay, and now with Tufts University as a Director of Hockey Analytics. Vince can always be found with a coffee in hand and he promises his sarcastic tone will always shine through his work.