The Boston Bruins enter Thursday's home game with the Calgary Flames leading the Eastern Conference with 22 points – only Vegas in the West has more – despite having played all season without one of their top players and one of the best all-around defensemen in the NHL in All-Star Charlie McAvoy. He will make his season debut tonight, and the Bruins are -195 favorites at Caesars Sportsbook.
McAvoy underwent a complex left shoulder arthroscopic stabilization procedure on June 3 and was expected to miss at least six months, but obviously will make it back well ahead of schedule – just like teammates Brad Marchand and Matt Grzelcyk did from their injuries. McAvoy suffered the injury in Game 6 of the first-round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes. He was checked against the boards and his arm went numb. McAvoy played in Game 7, but it lingered after the Bruins' loss.
The 24-year-old McAvoy is a game-changing defenseman because of his skating, physicality and instinctive play. Last season, he had 10 goals, 46 assists, a stellar plus/minus rating of plus-31 and led the Bruins with 24:38 average ice time per game. He was fifth in the Norris Trophy voting and is currently +3000 to win it this year.
First-year Boston coach Jim Montgomery confirmed McAvoy will be back in his top blueline spot with Grzelcyk against the Flames, but didn't rule out some "mixing and matching" on the back end. McAvoy is usually on the No. 1 power-play unit. Boston ranks seventh with the man advantage this year, converting 26.7% of the time. Boston is now a +500 favorite to win the Eastern Conference.
Calgary lost stars and leading scorers Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk this offseason and the team has taken a huge step back as expected, entering on a six-game losing streak. Top-six forward Jonathan Huberdeau, acquired from Florida in the Tkachuk trade, is in question after missing Tuesday's loss to New Jersey with an injury. Huberdeau, 29, has only produced six points in 11 games after amassing 115 points in 80 games a year ago for the Panthers.
NHL free pick: Bruins at -195
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