COLUMBUS, Ohio – The pathway to NHL stardom hasn’t been a totally linear one for the young and extremely talented David Pastrnak.
Two years ago, the puck prodigy was the youngest player in both the NHL and the AHL. He finished with 21 goals and 55 points in 71 combined games for Boston and Providence as one of only two 2014 draft picks (Aaron Ekblad was the other) to finish that first season in the NHL.
Through no fault of Pastrnak’s, that kind of virtuoso accomplishment on the ice set the bar very high for expectations in his sophomore season and beyond.
“He’s one of those guys that is always happy to be at the rink, always smiling and always wanting to get better,” said Patrice Bergeron during training camp. “That’s all you can ask for in a player and he’s got tremendous skills. He just needs to play his game and be himself out there.”
After all, the Czech-born player can skate, pass and shoot the puck at an elite level, and provided Bruins fans with another young and ridiculously skilled player who might have allowed them to start forgetting about the loss of Tyler Seguin just a little bit. But then fate intervened with a fractured foot early last season and Pastrnak experienced a bit of adversity in his sophomore campaign before ending the year with a flourish in the final B’s push for the playoffs.
The numbers were okay for Pastrnak and extraordinary for a 19-year-old in the NHL: 15 goals and 26 points in 51 games while fighting through injury as well as stops in Providence and at the World Juniors mixed in. Clearly, more will be expected out of the right winger headed into this season as he tries to consistently play a top-six role in his third NHL season.
That shouldn’t be much of a problem for player who's still younger than more than 90 percent of the league.
Still, if anybody can step up to fill some of the offensive void left by the departure of Loui Eriksson, it will be the Pasta Man in his third go-round. The third NHL season is typically when many of the most talented young NHL players start to take off for the statistical stratosphere and show just how good they can be at the elite level.
Even more than that, Pastrnak is one of those key players on the Boston roster that could help lift this team back to playoff relevancy if he can take the next step. Certainly he has worked diligently while remaining behind in Boston to hit the weights this summer and was close to a career-high 190 pounds prior to departing for the World Cup of Hockey.
Pastrnak knows the expectations, and the team needs, are there for him to ascend to being a 20-goal scorer and a player who can translate his dazzling skill into consistent points. But the youngster isn’t going to put undue pressure on himself to reach a certain level of goals or points and says he simply wants to be part of a winning team in the playoffs.
“Obviously I want to play on the top lines and work hard,” said Pastrnak. “I definitely don’t have any expectations with myself. I’m just trying to get better every day. Especially when I play with guys like [Marchand and Bergeron], I’m just trying to learn something new every day, and every game. The season is long and I want the team to do better and for me to help them. I just want to try get better and help us as much as I can.”
Truth be told, there were growing pains with Pastrnak on and off the ice the past couple of years. Certainly nothing of a serious nature beyond the normal stuff every rookie must learn when they enter a league built on tradition and respect. Brad Marchand described Pastrnak and the other young players as “big puppies” in the NHL dressing room, with their boundless energy a boon to the club and their sheer inexperience and naiveté an endless source of amusement.
There are also the hard lessons on the ice, of course, when mistakes landed Pastrnak on the bench for key shifts late in games when his play was too reckless with the puck. That’s something Pastrnak’s own teammates, and in this case his sometimes linemates, have tried to help him understand over the past couple of years.
“I know that at this time of my career, there are so many young players to look up to me, and they listen. That’s the good thing about them is that they’re willing to learn,” said fellow Czech Republic naïve David Krejci to CSN New England’s Great American Hockey Show podcast.
“Sometimes you’re on the bench, and you kind of have to raise your voice at friends you don’t want to hurt. It’s like with David [Pastrnak]. We’ve become really good friends, but there have been times when I’ve had to let him know on the bench ‘You can’t do these things.’
“It doesn’t feel good inside for me to tell him, but I know, and he knows, that I mean well. We all forget about it, we all learn from our mistakes, and then we move on. [Zdeno Chara] is probably the guy that sticks in my head when it comes to these [teaching moments]. He lets you know when you make a mistake, and he raises his voice. That’s a big voice, and you take it to heart. You don’t let it in one ear and out the other. You think about the mistake, and the next time you’re in that situation you hear the voice [in your head], and you don’t make the mistake again. That’s what leaders do, and when you send the message in the right way then a teammate will respond.”
So what kinds of things has Krejci pulled Pastrnak aside for when it’s a teachable moment for the youngster?
The 30-year-old Bruins center said it could be something as simple as not waiting to get off the bus until after all of the veteran players, or not noticing that the rookies are the ones that collect all of the pucks from the ice at the end of practice. These are time-honored rituals in sports for youngsters to pay their dues before earning status as a veteran player, and it’s part of the natural rhythm of a professional sports team.
But it goes beyond that to important decisions on the ice and not taking enough good care of the puck while in possession. Last year, Pastrnak had some horrific games with turnovers and giveaways to go along with the games in the “good” category. The Bruins tabulated their own stats that had the talented young right winger coughing the biscuit up at a much higher rate than all of his teammates.
Those reckless times were the moments when Krejci was letting him know on the bench and Claude Julien was sitting Pastrnak for shifts with valuable points on the line. The B’s bench boss said he’s seen a different Pasta in the preseason: a maturing player that’s starting to “get it” when it comes to finding balance between playmaking producer, and player that can be relied upon to make the smart play during winning and losing time.
It’s that exact thing that players such as Bergeron and Krejci have found ways to perfectly balance over the years.
“As far as Pastrnak is concerned, we want to see a guy that takes another step forward. He’s still a young player. He’s a 20-year-old, and that’s still young in this league. But he’s gotten stronger and he’s gotten better, and he’s gotten more experience. I can tell now by his play choices [on the ice]. There’s less ‘hope’ plays, and more stronger plays. That comes with time, and that’s where patience comes into play,” said Julien. “When he got reckless at times last year, he missed some shifts. So that’s the way you teach a guy to be a better player. If you want to play and get more ice time then you have to minimize those [risks].
“He’s learned that and he’s much better at it and he is getting more ice time. You just want to see those players evolve. He’s got speed, he’s got skill and he could compliment the [Bergeron and Marchand] line really well. But if that doesn’t work the way we want it to work then we’ll find another solution.”
Clearly, things have changed a bit with Bergeron out of the lineup and Pastrnak now finds himself skating right wing with Marchand and David Backes for Thursday night’s season opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets. But the song remains the same for the Pastrnak as he enters the final year of his entry-level contract with the Bruins: just keep getting better, just keep making good, smart decisions within the team concept and flash a little skill and dazzle when it’s called for while putting together his best season yet in the NHL.
It’s something the Bruins badly need from the game-breaking Pastrnak as they rely more than ever this season on the drafted-and-developed youthful element to help carry the team back to where they need to be.