Haggerty: Pastrnak an improved, important figure in Bruins' success plan

Haggerty: Pastrnak an improved, important figure in Bruins' success plan

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. 


Bruins at the bye week: In good shape, but in need of an upgrade

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Bruins at the bye week: In good shape, but in need of an upgrade

The Bruins hit the bye week in a pretty good spot, even if they dragged bottom a little bit in getting there.

Losses over the last two weeks to a couple of non-playoff teams in the Flyers and Rangers certainly revealed a team that was in need of a break, but it also underscored some shortcomings with the Bruins team in general. Some of those shortcomings can be addressed by adjustments and the good coaching everybody has seen for three seasons from Bruce Cassidy and Co. and some of it will need to be solved by searching outside the organization.

“I thought we had some really good games. You know we had some games we could’ve probably played better, but overall I think we’re in a good position going into the break. Obviously after the break it’s going to be very important to keep playing strong and keep climbing in the standings,” said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. “It’s going to obviously be the second half of the season. It’s always very important to play better and keep improving and closer you get to the playoffs, you know, you demand to play the best hockey.”

Perhaps even more young players like Peter Cehlarik and Trent Frederic will provide some of those answers in the second half of the season following the bye week and NHL All-Star weekend. But those questions will be answered in the future over the next three months.

Now is the time to take stock with where the Bruins currently sit, and where they hope to be once the playoffs begin in April.


Offense: On the periphery, things are very good offensively for the Bruins. They managed to survive an extended period when both Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara were injured, and their Perfection Line once again led the way in the first half. David Pastrnak has gone supernova while on pace for 45 goals and 97 points in what would be one of the best offensive seasons for the Black and Gold in decades, and both Patrice Bergeron (28 goals and 82 points) and Brad Marchand (32 goals and 89 points) are in line for outstanding offensive campaigns of their own. Jake DeBrusk is on pace for 26 goals in his second NHL season, and David Krejci is on pace for a pretty strong 17 goals and 67 points as the second line center. Torey Krug is on pace for nine goals and 60 points, which are close to his normal numbers in each of his previous three seasons.

Multiple injuries to Charlie McAvoy have taken away some of the offensive bite from the back end this season, and have certainly played into a team that’s been inconsistent at even strength despite their offensive stars.

The third line has been a season-long riddle for Bruce Cassidy, and the first half struggles for players like Danton Heinen, David Backes and Ryan Donato absolutely played into bottom-6 inconsistency. The Bruins brought up Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson to bring something to the third line, and there have been some moments for a kid third line of JFK, Donato and Heinen over the last month. But there’s still not much consistency in terms of secondary scoring from the third line, and the entire Bruins team in general is struggling to do damage during even strength play. The Bruins are second in the league with a 27.2 percent success rate on the power play, and that’s been a major weapon for them all season. But they’ve also become overly reliant on special teams to win games, and their power play has allowed an NHL-worst 10 shorthanded goals this season.

The fourth line has been excellent over the last couple of months, and Chris Wagner is on pace for 10 goals and 20 points while Sean Kuraly has used a great past six weeks to put himself on pace for 10 goals and 25 points.

The real question is whether the Bruins can properly fix their even strength situation by inserting young players like JFK, Trent Frederic or Cehlarik, and perhaps also removing Pastrnak from the top line while pairing him with his fellow Czech in Krejci. Or can those issues only be solved by going outside the organization for a top-6 winger like Wayne Simmonds, Micheal Ferland, Brayden Schenn or some other name in that class. Because it feels pretty certain that they need something added to their group if they hope to beat Tampa Bay come the postseason, and that’s been apparent since last season’s five-game playoff loss to the Lightning. Otherwise, the same fate could be awaiting the Bruins again this spring based on some of the offensive shortcomings as compared to teams like the Lightning and the Maple Leafs.


Defense and Goaltending: The Bruins are tied with Nashville and Dallas for the lowest goals against average (2.61) in the entire NHL, and they’ve managed to do that despite injuries to Zdeno Chara, Kevan Miller, Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug, and significant portions of the season where players like Steve Kampfer, Connor Clifton and Jeremy Lauzon have needed to step up and play important roles. Tuukka Rask started slowly this season per usual and Jaroslav Halak hit the skids going into the All-Star break, but they have combined to be arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league with the numbers to back it up. Halak was top-5 in goals against average and save percentage for most of the first half of the season, and Rask’s current .919 save percentage would be his best mark in four years.

Given the way things played out over December and January, one would expect Rask is going to take on the traditional No. 1 goalie role in the second half of the season after splitting equal time with Halak in the first half of the year. What will be interesting, though, is to see how things break down in the playoffs, and whether or not the B’s coaching staff would go with Halak if Rask isn’t playing his best in the big games. But for now both goalies have given the Bruins a chance to win on the majority of games in the first half, and that’s the most a hockey club can ask for.

Clearly the goaltenders masked some of the issues that the Bruins were having when they went through their spate of injuries, but the Bruins seemed to have found ideal combos of puck movers and shutdown D-men since everybody got healthy. Miller and Chara are still stalwart penalty killers and defensive warriors, and Brandon Carlo has arguably made the most strides of any of Boston’s defensemen over the last calendar year. Even Matt Grzelcyk has offset some of his physical weaknesses in the D-zone with his smarts, solid positioning and great technique along with the ability to skate the puck out of the zone quickly and efficiently. But there are definitely some defensive weak spots on this team. Krug is a minus-5 and goes through bouts where he gets trapped in the defensive zone against the elite offensive players he’s sometimes matched up with. Donato is a team-worst minus-11 and had a trip to the AHL for some remedial defensive work in the first few months of the season, and Noel Acciari is a minus-8 while getting the short end of the defensive stick on occasion.

One area where the B’s could improve? They are middle of the road on the penalty kill with an 80.7 percent success rate. It’s certainly not terrible and the penalty kill hasn’t been a major issue in most games, but they should be even better given the personnel, the goaltending and the way they’ve performed even strength for most of the season. While there are still plenty of areas for improvement up front for the Bruins in the second half, the B’s appear pretty set on the back end. The only question is whether one of those D-men might be on the move in a big trade given that John Moore has become a healthy scratch over the last few weeks. Players like Grzelcyk, Krug and Carlo would have significant trade value in a package for a game-breaking forward and the Bruins have the kind of defensive depth where they could execute that kind of deal. 

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NHL Rumors: Oilers fire ex-Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli amid rough season


NHL Rumors: Oilers fire ex-Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli amid rough season

Peter Chiarelli's second tenure as an NHL general manager was much shorter than his first.

The Edmonton Oilers fired Chiarelli as their GM late Tuesday night after losing their final game before the NHL All-Star break, TSN's Ryan Rishaug reported. The team has yet to confirm the news.

Chiarelli was named the Oilers' GM in April 2015 and began his tenure on a high note, selecting superstar Conor McDavid first overall in the 2015 NHL Draft. He has failed to surround McDavid with enough talent, however, and has made several questionable moves since then, from trading away former No. 1 pick Taylor Hall to spending $42 million on Milan Lucic.

Things have gone from bad to worse this season in Edmonton, where the team is second-to-last in the Pacific Division entering the All-Star break and recently placed Ryan Spooner, whom Chiarelli traded young forward Ryan Strome to acquire in November, on waivers.

Boston Bruins fans may have seen this coming. Chiarelli spent nine seasons as the Bruins' GM and helped the club win a Stanley Cup in 2011 but couldn't build a roster that sustained success. Boston missed the playoffs in the 2014-15 season, leading to the Harvard alum's firing in April.

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