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Bruins might pair Charlie McAvoy with Zdeno Chara

Rookie defenseman gets tips from 'big brother' ahead of Game 1 vs. Senators

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

BOSTON -- The scene has been replayed over and over: There is Zdeno Chara, captain of the Boston Bruins and 2009 Norris Trophy winner, alongside a young defenseman, easing his transition into the world of NHL hockey, making him vastly better. It happened with Dougie Hamilton, with Zach Trotman, with Brandon Carlo, and now, perhaps, with Charlie McAvoy.

After interim coach Bruce Cassidy paired McAvoy with veteran John-Michael Liles on the rookie's first day of NHL practice Monday, he put Chara with McAvoy on the second day. And while the coach would not commit to using that pairing in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVAS2, NESN), it remains a logical decision. 

Because that is where rookies excel. It's where Chara excels, too.

"We like the young guys with Zee," Cassidy said after the Bruins' final practice before the Stanley Cup Playoffs. "Zee likes to be the big brother. He relishes that role, I think."


[RELATED: Complete Senators-Bruins series coverage]


It's a risk, of course, to expose young defensemen to top defense-pair duty. But that risk is mitigated by a number of factors, by the abilities and smarts of Chara, by the captain's way of communicating and explaining on the ice, by the way a young player can bolster the 40-year-old, especially in getting back on pucks and aiding the transition game.

"I think Zee likes tutoring the young guys." Cassidy said. "He's gotten used to it now and he enjoys it. That's part of his game, that he's a student of the game. … So I think that translates when he deals with young guys."

That much is obvious in the raves he draws, in the ways that Hamilton and Trotman and Carlo and others have spoken about getting a chance to play alongside Chara. 

They love it. They know how much it benefits them.

That much was immediately obviously to McAvoy as he skated with Chara in his second official NHL practice, at least after he got over his initial awe.

"It was kind of shocking at first when you're out there moving the puck with a guy like that," said the 19-year-old, the No. 14 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. "He's just such an amazing player, the leader of this team. He was really good to me today. We talked a lot on the ice, just little lessons here and there. He was telling me to do this, do that, and it goes a long way, it really does."

It's why McAvoy thinks that Chara keeps being paired with teenagers, players less than half his age. It just makes sense, putting them in a position to succeed, even if it would seem to be more prudent to hide them on lesser pairs. 

"It's not a surprise why they do that, to put a guy with less experience like myself or, at the beginning of the year, Brandon Carlo, and put him with a guy like that, who just has so much experience, who has such a storied career," McAvoy said. "He knows what he's doing. 

Video: TBL@BOS: Chara drills a blistering one-timer for PPG

"It's easy to see why they do, to help that transition become easier for someone like myself. I'm just thankful that I had the opportunity today to practice with him."

There are no guarantees. McAvoy could be paired with Chara or with Liles or he could be in the press box for Game 1, though that seems very unlikely. The Bruins have ruled out Torey Krug (lower-body injury) and Carlo (upper-body injury) for Game 1, which has opened up the spot for McAvoy and the opportunity for him to go through one of the grand traditions of being a young, right-shot Bruins defenseman.

"When you put a young guy with a partner, I think that partner has to have some sort of communication skills and want to do it," Cassidy said. "It's pretty tough for a young kid to go in and the guy's in his own world or focused only on his job. It makes it a little more difficult."

That isn't the way Chara operates. He teaches. He coaches. He counsels. He leads the defense and his partner, as they navigate the game. 

So, though there are no set pairs for Game 1, it would make sense to put McAvoy with Chara, to see if the pair can find chemistry, the way other young players have with Chara. The Bruins have, over and over, found that this is the way things work best: mentor and mentee, veteran and rookie, big brother and little brother. 

"Sometimes things just fall into place," Cassidy said, of pairing Carlo with Chara at the start of the season. "But we're appreciative of Zee doing that. It makes our job a lot easier. On-ice coaches are invaluable because they're the ones out there in the trenches. We can talk to them about video, but to hear it from a fellow player that's been there and done it, a Norris Trophy winner, goes a lot further than it does from the coaching staff."

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