Revisiting Austin Czarnik

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With the unfortunate setback of Boston Bruins center Ryan Spooner’s concussion this week, another door of opportunity has opened for Austin Czarnik.

The undrafted free agent and former Miami University Redhawks captain had spent most of the season with the big club after a standout rookie pro campaign a year ago with the Providence Bruins. The Michigan native made the big club out of camp before taking a cheap hit late in the preseason that caused him to miss a little time up front.

“I know what he’s going through,” Czarnik said of Spooner’s situation after the Boston morning skate prior to their Wednesday night game against the flailing Detroit Red Wings. “He said it’s a mild one, but still- it’s a concussion, so you just gotta be careful with it. I felt good when I came back, but I felt like I was 100 percent, but maybe my cognitive (ability) wasn’t all there. Just moving back and forth, but it felt great. But when I got on the ice, it was a little bit different, so I think I may have rushed it just a little but it just takes time.”

Czarnik has always been a high-end skill player with the hockey sense and creativity to be an offensive force, but his lack of size resulted in a lot of disappointments throughout his progression up the developmental ladder.

“For me, it was hard growing up because I was cut from every triple-A team pretty much because I was too small,” said Czarnik. “It was a hard process for me, but I always had at least one person who believed in me throughout my whole career pretty much. They believe in me right now, and I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to show what I have again in Boston.”

Czarnik hinted at maybe being a little too conservative in his approach, which may be a reflection of his reticence to try higher-risk plays as a rookie. Or, it could have been a veiled reference to his only NHL coach to date (at least until Bruce Cassidy takes his place behind the Boston bench tonight), Claude Julien, and his reputation for a lower-risk, team defense system.

“I’ve been simple so much this year- I think I can start trying to make plays,” he said. “Realize what plays I have on the ice to make and not just try to get the puck in, things like that. So, that’s what I’m going to try and focus on and just try to create space out there for my linemates.”

As a productive player at the USHL and NCAA levels, it seems more than a little surprising in hindsight that not one of the 30 NHL clubs took a late-round flyer on Czarnik. However, what happened in the past is of little consequence, as these days, with the Second Chance Saloon open for business in terms of the annual NCAA free agent derby that occurs each spring as college hockey seasons come to an end, he was able to parlay his talent and production into an opportunity with the Bruins, much like another Michigander in Boston teammate Torey Krug, was able to do.

“Obviously, it’s every kid’s dream to get drafted, so I was a little hurt when I didn’t,” he said. “The second year, I didn’t even get picked up either out of college, so I was kind of hurt by that time, but I realized I just had to prove them wrong again, so that was the main thing and I’m happy it happened because I had options to pick from and things like that. So- any kid that doesn’t get drafted, it’s probably the best thing that can happen to you because you’ll have teams that want you if you work hard. That’s the biggest thing- you can just pick from your hand, so it was a cool feeling.”

Czarnik credited a former college teammate, since departed from the Bruins organization in forward Reilly Smith, with helping him to decide on Boston over the other suitors he had in the spring of 2015. He said that the tradition surrounding the B’s and the chance to play in a city like this one were major factors in his decision, one that seems to have paid off for the time being, as he is living his NHL dream with another opportunity to stick after being returned to Providence late last month.

“I think we’re just going to try and stay on the same page in terms of what they’ve been on,” Czarnik said of his slotting onto the third line in hopes of recapturing some of the magical chemistry he had with left wing Frank Vatrano in Providence last year as rookies. “Obviously, Spooner’s a really good player; I’m going to try and fill some of his shoes, but it’s going to be hard because he always makes plays. We just want to keep the train rolling and go from there.”

After an NHL stint on IR, Czarnik was sent down to Providence where he played five AHL games before being summoned to take Spooner’s place in the lineup. He talked about the importance of getting his conditioning back under control after missing three weeks and knocking the rust off of his timing and overall game with a lot of minutes at even strength, on the power play and killing penalties. He’s glad he had the chance to get some games in rather that have to regain his timing in NHL action.

Czarnik’s familiarity with former Providence head coach Cassidy will certainly help with the transition in his first game with the latter in charge of the Boston roster.

“When he’s playing his game, he’s got good energy; he’s on the puck, he’s creating turnovers with his foot speed, his stick, his hockey IQ and he’s making plays- him and Vatrano certainly have some chemistry,” Cassidy told assembled media during his post-skate presser. “He’s been good in situational hockey for us. He’s PK work’s been pretty solid. The power play…we’re going to move him around…he was up high before and I think he’s ideally better suited to be making plays around the net so he’s going to get to play in all situations and hopefully, he’s ready to respond. He’s had some experience up here; he should know what to expect in that regard, and he’s healthy.”

When asked by your TSP founder about Czarnik’s progression from rookie pro to where he is now, Cassidy opened up with more thoughtful and detailed commentary:

“His understanding of the game is better- he’s playing against men. The American League is certainly big guys, energetic guys, but they’re not men yet and as a smaller guy, he’s had to learn what he can get away with and what he can’t. This time around, we’re going to find out what he’s learned in that area. Like a lot of players, it’s the reps- getting to play with and against top-end, world-class talent, and he’s a smart guy; he’s got good hockey IQ. He thinks the game well, so it has to be one of his best assets. That, and a high motor- we’ve talked about that. If he’s not playing with a high motor, his effectiveness will decrease. And so those are the things we’re looking for in him. We expect an energy guy, using his speed…He’s got to use it and he’s got to use it all the time. I think that’s how he stays in this league.”

Cassidy declined to confirm whether Czarnik will need to make his bones at center or wing to remain in the NHL, saying that he thinks the youngster is better at center but has the versatility to play all three forward positions and has been moved around to find the best matchups.

“The jury is still out,” Cassidy said to close out his comments on Czarnik’s fit up the middle in the NHL going forward, but the by the gist of his comments, the interim head coach will give him every opportunity to try and establish himself there.

Austin Czarnik 13-14 Miami home front

Austin Czarnik’s 2013-14 Miami University Redhawks captain sweater (Kirk Luedeke photo)

 

 

Bruins add veteran Drew Stafford for conditional (late) pick

A largely uneventful NHL trade deadline day (the more meaningful adds happened before the Wednesday afternoon cutoff) ended with the Boston Bruins acquiring former 2004 13th overall draft selection and RW Drew Stafford from the Winnipeg Jets for a reported conditional (B’s making the playoffs? unconfirmed) 6th-round pick.

(Here are some YouTube highlights from a Buffalo fan “Topshot Elite 19):

After a year ago, when GM Don Sweeney added a pair of veterans in John-Michael Liles and Lee Stempniak for a total of four draft picks, only to see the team crater down the stretch and miss the playoffs for a second consecutive spring, this move is a bit more well-received because it represents a low cost/risk to add a solid veteran forward with size and scoring ability, albeit one who’s been hampered by injuries and a poor season.

Some of the rumored trades involving Gabriel Landeskog and Dmitri Kulikov never materialized for Boston, but in all honesty- anything more than Stafford would have likely required a cost that Sweeney and Co. were not willing to take on. The current Bruins team is 7-1 under interim head coach Bruce Cassidy, and adding him gives the new bench boss more flexibility at the forward position with a player who starred at the University of North Dakota and was a member of the USA’s first-ever gold medal-winning squad at the World Jr. Championship in 2004.

Here’s a quick look at what Stafford brings to the table for the B’s in the final make-or-break stretch of the season, one that has ended in the final weekend in each of the last two campaigns.

Upside: Four goals in 40 games with the Jets is a stark contrast to the 21 in 78 he scored a year ago (Stafford’s best season was in 2011 when he tallied 31 goals in just 62 games- a 40-goal pace). He’s likely to replace Jimmy Hayes on Boston’s third line and assuming Ryan Spooner stays at the center position, the two are a good fit, with Frank Vatrano over on the left side. Stafford is more of a north-south, crash-the-net kind of player, while Vatrano drifts through layers in defenses to find space to unleash his lethal shot. Spooner is your classic slasher who jitterbugs in and out of traffic to set up plays…if he and Vatrano can get pucks to the net, then Stafford has a better than average chance of banging some of them in. Stafford is a good fit for the way that the Bruins like to play. With more than 700 games of NHL experience and 31 years old, he’s been around enough but is not so long in the tooth that he can’t give the B’s offense a modest jolt.

Downside: The unrestricted free agent to be is having his poorest season to date, so to expect anything but a minimal upgrade to what Hayes gave the B’s this year is probably setting the bar too high. The knock on Stafford has always been a lack of consistency- he can go through long periods where he simply doesn’t accomplish much. That’s near criminal, when you look at the highlights of some of his better scoring plays, where he drives with power into traffic and through would-be checkers to crash the net and score with a quick and sneaky release.

Verdict: For a conditional sixth-round pick, this is a low-risk move that expresses faith in the current roster and lets them try and make the postseason with what they have. Fans sometimes forget that no team wants to have a bad year and tank, and 2017 is certainly not the season to do that- no disrespect intended to top prospects like Nolan Patrick, Nico Hischier, etc.- it’s just that we’ve been spoiled in recent years with top-2 selections like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine– this year, the bottom feeders aren’t likely to get players with that kind of elite franchise cornerstone cachet.  The benefit of making the playoffs, even if the Bruins aren’t considered by just about everyone to be legitimate championship contenders, is that the younger players get a taste of the intensity of playoff hockey and that helps to develop them. The B’s are not a team that needs to blow everything up, so Stafford is a solid if unspectacular add.

For years, Boston fans saw him score some big goals against the Black and Gold. Now, they’ll get a chance to see if he can help propel the spoked B into the NHL postseason. In a division where every other team added pieces to improve, it might be moot, but Stafford gives his new team a fighting chance at least. And that’s really all most people want.

 

 

3 Amigos Supplemental Podcast (Ep. 9): Ask the Amigos

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As promised, Dom, Reed and I are back with a 45-minute Q & A from questions we got from listeners and readers on Twitter.

We’re giving you our best shot, because we wanna be your dogs. It’s true- just like Iggy Pop does for our podcast music.

This will be the last Amigos podcast for a while- we enjoy bringing these to you, but we all have full-time gigs and don’t have the ability or resources to produce regular offerings. Appreciate the support as always.

Enjoy.

 

 

Deconstructing the Claude Julien firing

About 24 hours ago, the Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney officially swung the Sword of Damocles that had been hanging over the organization and coach Claude Julien’s head for weeks (some would even say years), dismissing the franchise’s all-time wins leader and Stanley Cup champion behind the bench, setting off a firestorm of criticism online and in the media for the timing and way it was handled.

This post will attempt to analyze the move and the subsequent naming of assistant coach Bruce Cassidy as the B’s interim bench boss. It is by no means the first and last word on the matter, nor will it hit every bucket that the firing impacts. Whether you were someone who felt it was time to go and are angered that the team elected to do it on the morning of the New England Patriots’ victory parade, are someone who felt he was not the problem and are even more irate at the timing, or are someone who feels like the move had to be made and have no issue with it (and everyone in between), this piece will try to raise multiple perspectives and shed light on some of the other factors that led to where we are on Wednesday, February 8, 2017- nearly a decade after Julien was brought in on the heels of the failed Dave Lewis experiment.

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Breaking: Julien out, Cassidy in

The Boston Bruins announced this morning that the franchise’s all-time wins leader and 2011 Stanley Cup-winning head coach Claude Julien has been relieved of his duties after nearly a decade in the position and more than 400 victories. B’s assistant and former Providence Bruins bench boss Bruce Cassidy will serve as interim head coach in Boston. Cassidy, who previously held the head coaching job with the Washington Capitals, inherits a team that most recently lost critical points to the division rival Toronto Maple Leafs in a crushing 6-5 defeat and is fighting for its playoff lives.

With the New England Patriots victory happening today, GM Don Sweeney will hold a press conference to officially announce the move and discuss the way ahead. The timing of Julien’s dismissal is curious, to say the least, but given his pedigree- he is sure to land on his feet and won’t be unemployed for long.

More analysis on Julien’s legacy and expanded context on Cassidy and the organization to follow on the blog later tonight or in next 24 hours.

EDITOR’s note- The conference is over, with GM and new coach meeting the press, plus revelation that Joe Sacco will cover down on D and Jay Pandolfo will move to the bench during games. A lot to unpack and not sure the first/hottest take is going to cut it.

 

 

Krug train is rolling

Boston Bruins v New York Rangers - Game Four

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 23: Torey Krug #47 of the Boston Bruins looks on against the New York Rangers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 23, 2013 in New York City. The Rangers won 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

We admit it.

This hockey blog is unabashed in its support of Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug. That’s not going to change. Ever.

Maybe it’s because while working for Red Line Report in 2011-12, we recommended the Michigan State captain as the best undrafted NCAA free agent value in the country. Not one of the best values, mind you…THE best. Almost five years later, we’ll take that bow.

Maybe it’s because we got to know Krug off the ice, before he ever really made it as an NHL regular for the Boston Bruins and realized in those moments that he not only had exceptional talent, but exceptional character as well. If a player wants it badly enough, they’ll likely get there. To this day, watching Friday Night Lights reruns on Netflix with Krug, Jared Knight and Ryan Spooner in their Providence, R.I. rookie pro bachelor pad on a December night in 2012 and hearing Krug repeat the “Clear eyes, full hearts…can’t lose” mantra with the conviction of someone absolutely confident of his NHL future stands out as one of the more surreal moments in a life spent covering past, present and future pro hockey players for the past 17 years.

Maybe it’s because ever since he broke into the big league big time during the 2013 playoffs, there has always seemed to be this segment of Bruins fandom who just can’t get past his lack of size and what we can only guess is a sexy draft pedigree that would make them feel good and clean about rooting for him, the way he deserves to be respected.

Whatever the reason, Krug has overcome an understandably slow start to become one of the NHL’s top two-way performers as the 2016-17 campaign wends its way past the halfway mark. We have always been all-aboard the Krug hype train so to speak, and if you can’t at least grudgingly recognize that he’s delivering value for his 4-year, $5.25M extension signed last summer, then you’re not welcome on the train anyway.

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Breaking (it down on) Bad Brandon Carlo

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Brandon Carlo- 2nd-round, 37th overall in 2015 (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Don’t be misled by the title- Boston Bruins rookie defenseman Brandon Carlo has been anything but “bad” in the first quarter of his introduction to the NHL. We use the word “bad” in the best sense to describe Carlo as a player who has rapidly carved a niche for himself with the B’s, infusing the blue line with the kind of shutdown consistency that was so lacking a year ago.

The Colorado Springs-area  native and 37th overall selection in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft is the youngest defenseman to break into the NHL full-time alongside a future Hall of Fame partner since 19-year-old Dougie Hamilton arrived at the start of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign.

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3 Amigos Podcast with special guest Jesse Gabrielle + B’s prospects and the legend of Moe Lemay

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The boys are back with another 3 Amigos podcast- Reed Duthie, Dominic Tiano and me bring you our sixth episode since we started doing these before the 2016 NHL Entry Draft last June.

This time, Bruins prospect Jesse Gabrielle joins us fresh off of signing his entry-level contract with Boston over the weekend. The Prince George Cougars winger scored 40 goals a year ago and is on pace for more with a surging team that already has 24 wins on the season.

We also talk Bruins prospects and the upcoming World Junior Tournament. Defenseman Jeremy Lauzon made the final roster for Team Canada, announced last night, while Zachary Senyshyn was the last forward cut. That disappointment will probably provide some extra motivation for Senyshyn, but we can’t help but question Canada’s decision here. His speed and scoring prowess seems like a no-brainer, but they have their reasons. If at the end of the tourney, Canada is not skating around with gold medals around their necks, the decision not to include the player with the second most goals scored in the OHL since the 2015 draft will likely be revisited.

We also have a discussion about the Bruins’ poor home record over the past several seasons, which goes in several different directions before revisiting Boston’s memorable 1988 playoff series win over the Montreal Canadiens and cult hero (former Ottawa 67’s star) Maurice “Moe” Lemay.

It’s a jam-packed 1.5 hours, so we hope you’ll stay with it. We eschew the normal 3 Amigos theme to go all Christmas on you, as well. The Waitresses classic “Christmas Wrapping” is a great way to close it out.

Thanks for listening!

 

 

Becoming Pastrnak

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It’s official…we can stop speaking about potential because David Pastrnak has arrived on hockey’s biggest stage and he isn’t going away.

13 goals into the 2016-17 NHL campaign, we had every indication that the 20-year-old’s rapid ascension from late first-round pick (23 teams and Vancouver two times passed on him before he got to Boston at 25th overall in 2014) to NHL rookie to a regression in his sophomore campaign to the straw stirring Boston’s scoring drink in just his third big league season was no fluke.

Last night, the native of Havirov in the Czech Republic, practically willed his Bruins to an important victory at home against the flailing Florida Panthers, an Atlantic Division opponent they could ill afford to surrender points to.

The B’s blew three leads, giving up the tying goal late before Pastrnak put on an electric laser show of his own during the 3-on-3 overtime period, taking a David Krejci Harlem Globetrotter-esque behind-the-back pass just inside the Panthers blue line. After that, it was pure magic as Pastrnak took the puck and rushed at former Boston College Eagle defender Michael Matheson who was caught standing still and only helplessly able to wave his stick at Boston’s young star as he went one way, then the other, skating around the blue paint to pull Roberto Luongo practically out of his own gear before firing the puck into the open net on the far side for his second tally of the night and 15th of the season.

We’re only six days into December and Pastrnak has already tied his career-best for goals in a single campaign, doing it in just 21 games where it took him 30 more to hit that total last year. He’s overcome nagging injuries and a ridiculous two-game suspension to keep pumping home the rubber in a year when Boston’s bigger stars- Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand– have had trouble finding the back of the net compared to their own normal lofty standards.

After Tuukka Rask, there is little doubt that the most important player to the B’s having been able to keep their heads above water in the early going this season is Pastrnak.

To put it more simply, the kid, who is still some six months away from being legally able to consume alcohol in the city in which he’s found a home, is a player.

Even with the subpar 2015-16 performance, exacerbated by a fractured foot and other ailments that cost him 31 games out of the schedule, we all had an idea that this was coming. Pastrnak made an immediate NHL splash in January 2015 after being a point-per-game player with Providence of the AHL, and has never really looked back.

Now healthy and benefiting from an aggressive and diligent offseason weight training regimen that has allowed him to win far more puck battles and drive the net with greater effectiveness than he could at ages 18-19, we’re seeing the pure skill and joy with which he plays the game paying off.

It’s not going to change, either.

So, how did we get here? There are a few important factors in Pastrnak’s breakout third NHL season, and we’ll try to break them down. This isn’t by any means an all-encompassing list of what drives the young right wing and explains the enormous success he’s having, but it gets to the heart of how he’s become the Pastrnak that has enthralled the city of Boston and Bruins fans all over the globe.

It’s the talent, stupid…

With apologies to former President William Jefferson Clinton, Pastrnak was a top-10 skill forward who fell to the final five selections of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft not because teams didn’t think he could play, but over injuries that took him out of action with Sodertalje in Sweden during the 2013-14 hockey season’s most important stretch drive…January thru March.

Hockey scouts typically confirm the players they are keen on (or not so keen on) during this 90-day (give or take) period, and if you’re not playing, then you could fall out of sight/out of mind.

Pastrnak is not the biggest guy, so a back injury that cost him just about that entire range of pro games probably scared some teams off in terms of durability concerns. To be fair, his struggles to stay healthy last year in Boston don’t alleviate the risk that will likely follow Pastrnak throughout his career. Because he plays the game with such abandon, he tends to put himself into compromising positions to take big hits. However, for Pastrnak to slide out of being a top-15 pick at worst all the way down to 25 was Boston’s great fortune.

Here’s the Red Line Report draft guide scouting report on him from June 2014 (he was ranked 14th and would have been higher if not for so much missed time), and you be the judge as to whether this sounds like a late 1st-round player to you or someone who should have been off the board inside the first 10 selections or so:

Shifty with excellent east-west moves and lateral agility- tough to contain. Needs very little time or space to get shots away from the slot or even off balance or on passes in his skates. Kicks passes from his skates up to stick blade in one motion without slowing or breaking stride. Very active running the PP from both the half-boards and down low- makes great cross-crease set ups. Edges well and is smooth out of his breaks with quick, slashing changes of direction. Great on the rush, utilizing dynamic puck skill and change of pace. At his best driving aggressively into lanes- not big, but fearlessly bulls his way through checkers to storm the net. Absolutely loves the game; great desire and plays every shift as if it were his last. Determined battler in traffic. Dangerous in open ice and impossible to corral 1-on-1. Terrific stickhandler buys time for linemates to get open and shows deft passing skills.

In the end, we can’t definitively explain why Pastrnak slipped so far, but we can say that the Bruins themselves valued him significantly more than where they were picking. According to one team source, they tried to trade up about 10 spots to take him at or around 15 but were unable to pull off the deal. Imagine their unmitigated thrill when they stood pat (and likely resigned themselves to not getting the player they really wanted) and he was still there at 25.

Humble beginnings in Havirov

Believe it or not, Pastrnak himself says he wasn’t always passionate about hockey.

We know…that’s hard to fathom in 2016, but despite his late father, Milan, having been a pro player in Europe’s lower-end league, cresting in Germany’s second division in the late 90’s, the younger Pastrnak was not an instant fanatic of the game.

During his second (and permanent) recall to Boston in January of 2015, TSP’s founder had a chance to sit down with the young rookie and interview him after a Bruins practice and Pastrnak told a story about how supportive his parents were when he was in his first years of organized hockey.

To paraphrase: There were days I just didn’t feel like going to practice, and they never pressured me or forced me to go. When I got older and all I wanted to do was live at the rink and play hockey, they allowed me to do it and were there for me. I think that’s important for kids- that their parents just let them take to hockey on their own schedule. It might explain why some kids burn out or lose their passion for it…it isn’t fun for them anymore. Hockey has always been fun for me, because my mom and dad let me develop my own love for the sport without any extra pressure.

Pastrnak said that there was one rink in his hometown and that he would dress up into full equipment (carrying his skates of course) at the family’s humble apartment and then ride the bus to the end of the line to practice and play. He maintains that the humble beginnings for him have been instrumental in his appreciation for the different places he’s gone since…Sodertalje in Sweden, then Providence, Rhode Island…and of course- Boston, where his pure ability and love of hockey has made him an instant fan favorite. He’s a blue collar kid who plays a decidedly more finesse style, but let’s face it- the love affair started right away because he has embraced Boston with as much force as B’s fans have taken to him.

Drive north on I-95 and never look back

The plan was for Pastrnak to spend a full year in the AHL with the Providence Bruins and if Boston was lucky, he might be ready to get a full-time NHL look for the 2015-16 season.

From the get-go, he emerged as one of the Baby B’s top players, impressing current assistant coach Bruce Cassidy with his maturity, work ethic and humility to go along with the obvious high-end offensive skills that translated immediately to a point-per-game seamless transition to North American hockey.

“He wants to be a player and it shows in everything he does,” Cassidy told us in early 2015 after a Providence game played without the rookie, summoned to Boston days before. “I think we’ve lost him (to Boston)…I’d be surprised if he comes back, and that speaks a great deal to not only his ability to play in the NHL, but the way he came in an absorbed everything we threw at him and not only was able to make an adjustment that not every European kid can, but performed as one of our top forwards. He’s a mature, driven guy- you don’t always see that because he has that easy smile and seems like a typical teenager, but he came in hungry and determined and it’s nice to see him rewarded for it.”

Another story from Pastrnak’s Providence days comes from respected Providence Journal hockey scribe Mark Divver, who talked of the rookie going down to the farm team after spending all of the preseason with Boston. Most of the “good” jersey numbers had been claimed at that point, according to Divver, and Pastrnak was offered No. 32- hardly a distinguished set of digits for a forward, let alone the parent club’s top pick and prospect.

“He said, ‘Yeah- I’ll take that number,’” Divver said (paraphrased). “’My father wore 32 and I’m happy to wear it, too.’ That’s the kind of kid he is- some might have sulked at not getting something more exciting, but he took 32 without complaint and then did some pretty good things with it while he was here.”

Seems like a trite and trivial anecdote, but it’s really not- Pastrnak showed up without an ounce of pretentiousness or entitlement. He just wanted to fit in and be treated like anyone else. Even when he was producing to the tune of 11 goals and 28 points in 25 AHL games before he went up to Boston permanently (Pastrnak did play three games in Providence last season going 1-3-4 in a conditioning stint after returning from his foot injury), he kept it grounded and humble, which is one of the things that the Bruins loved about him to begin with.

He took the lessons and experiences he had in the AHL, hopped in a car and drove up I-95 to Boston in January 2015, applying them effectively and not looking back.

 

Roll up the sleeves and get to work

In that Boston practice early in Pastrnak’s Bruins tenure, TSP was talking to B’s defenseman Torey Krug and asking him about the exciting newcomer. Krug’s immediate answer was pretty telling:

“Look around,” he said waving his arm around the cramped confines of the Ristuccia Arena dressing room. “Pasta’s not in here- I think he’s still out on the ice right now.”

Krug went on: “He’s always the last one off the ice, and I think that’s what makes the young players that stick. That’s what makes them special.”

Now a grizzled veteran, Krug couldn’t be more different from Pastrnak in terms of pedigree and path taken to the Bruins, but the two are kindred spirits when it comes to passion for hockey and the desire to achieve above and beyond what was expected of them.

Pastrnak indeed was the last player off the ice and into the room that day…we even had to ask for permission to stay in the room after it closed so we could talk to him. Permission granted, it was an enjoyable look into the mind of a young man who at 18 already understood the importance of hard work, and he pulled no punches in pointing out that he was motivated by those teams that skipped over him in the draft and made his wait at the Wells Fargo Center longer than it should have been.

“I love Boston and the Bruins,” he said after talking about proving “all the other teams” wrong. “What (do) they say…things happen for (a) reason?”

That attitude and the willingness to work on the ice and off- his conditioning has been a critical difference-maker in his rise near the top of the NHL’s goal scoring leaders this season- is what defines Pastrnak well beyond his impressive ability to play hockey and score goals.

As the old saying goes- “Talent will get you in the door, but character will keep you in the room.”

But don’t take our word for it- here’s what Patrice Bergeron, who back in 2003 knew exactly what Pastrnak was going through as another 18-year-old who beat the odds to make the big club right away, had to say:

“He’s one of those kids who wants to learn, wants to get better,” Bergeron said in 2015. “He’s excited and happy to be here and I think we’re seeing a shell of what he can be and that’s something very special.”

As usual, Boston’s Mr. Everything is on point.

One day, there’s a very good chance that Bergeron will hand the torch and mantle of being the face of the Bruins franchise to Pastrnak.

For now, Pastrnak has become what the team has needed most, and he shows no signs of slowing.

(Editor’s note- For additional reading, here is a link to the original article written by TSP founder Kirk Luedeke on David Pastrnak’s NHL coming out party from the February 2015 issue of New England Hockey Journal- this story and associated quotes and research formed the basis for this blog post.

http://digital.hockeyjournal.com/nxtbooks/seamans/nehj_201502/index.php#/10)

 

 

The Tuukka Rask mea culpa

Tuukka_Rask

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

One of the nice things about having a blog is the platform it provides to put out opinions and in the process, be praised by those who agree with you and taken to task by those who don’t.

Last April, I/we wrote a post here at the Scouting Post called “Requiem for the 2016 Bruins” in which we attempted to break down what went wrong in a season that looked like a success with just one month left in the regular campaign before the wheels fell off over a disastrous 30-day window that saw the Philadelphia Flyers come surging from behind to knock the well-positioned (as of mid-March 2016) Bruins out of the playoffs on the regular season’s last day.

One of the major culprits in my/our mind was goaltender Tuukka Rask, who took ill and couldn’t make the start for Boston in their do-or-die game against the Ottawa Senators at home to close out the season. Before we continue- let us just say that nothing on this blog is personal. TSP tries to provide a balanced perspective on hockey (on mostly Bruins or Bruins-related topics) and goes to great lengths not to be seen as “clickbait” or a pot-stirrer that tries to generate controversy with outlandish views designed to provoke and inflame the emotions of those readers and Bruins fans who frequent this page. We have always had the utmost respect for Rask’s ability as an NHL goaltender- he was a 1st-round pick for a reason and a top prospect long before he broke into the NHL with the Bruins on a full-time basis during the 2009-10 hockey season. Having said that, Rask the person is a bit more complex- he can be aloof and prickly when things aren’t going well. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s not exactly an ideal teammate at times either. This, coupled with his up-and-down play going back several seasons and the $7 million per year price tag he carries makes him a lightning rod of criticism at times.

Just as there is a segment of people who simply have never been on the “Tuukka Train” for whatever reason, there is a large cadre of Rask loyalists who have always seemed to take it personally whenever anyone questioned him, fair or not.

In the end, though, it is time to admit that TSP went too far last April in the position that the Bruins would be well served by looking into trading him. Here are a few “gems” from that post:

The Bruins were rumored to be discussing moving Rask on draft day last summer, and with hindsight being 20/20, they probably should have and given the reins to the then still (but not now) unproven Martin Jones. The Hamilton trade furor and fan backlash is likely what stopped Sweeney in his tracks on moving Rask (assuming the rumor is true), but after this season of up-and-down play and a less-than-team first attitude to boot, while the goaltender doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of the blame, he nevertheless played a key part in the collapse.

Hindsight being 20/20, it was far too easy to leverage Jones’ success in San Jose and wield it as a cudgel to brain Rask with. He didn’t get much defensive support last season, and while he had his own cross to bear at times, TSP took the lazy way out by pointing to the woulda-coulda-shoulda course of action by sticking with the untested Jones. Given the state of Boston’s defense, that could have been a catastrophe for the B’s, and while Rask didn’t play the best hockey of his career in 2015-16, he also stole some games for the B’s and did play a key role in putting them into a solid position going into the season’s final month. True- when the team imploded, Rask did so right along with everyone else, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you throw the baby out with the bath water.

Here’s more from last April:

For me, it’s simple- while I admire the hell out of Rask’s natural talent, I’m not sure I’d want him in a foxhole next to me. Right, wrong, indifferent- he’s the one core piece the Bruins could move to try and get out from under the situation they’re in. He’s not yet 30, will no doubt appeal to a multitude of teams that could see him as a critical piece to get them over the hump, and hey- he’s a talented player. Boston’s problem is that the teams with the most to gain from Rask and the most to offer (young, up-and-coming D) are all pretty well set between the pipes. Nobody ever said the life of a GM was easy…

Trading him certainly means there’s a good chance the B’s will take an even bigger step backwards next season if Rask is dealt, but maybe not. And what’s the real upside to keeping him for what looks to be another bridge/re-tool year even if the B’s can land one higher-end defender and maybe another capable player via free agency? We’ve already seen in two seasons that Rask was unable to elevate his play enough to negate the dearth of skill at other positions. So, depending on the return and how much cap space is allocated to other talent at other positions, it just might get Boston on the right track to sustained success sooner than many might think.

Wow, I even used the foxhole reference…as the old song goes: “nowhere to run to, baby- nowhere to hide…” The rationale was sound enough, but it looks nothing short of foolish after 1 month of the new season.

A funny thing happened on the way to burying the Boston defense for 2016-17 and Rask’s chances to do something important along with it- Brandon Carlo came along and has helped to reinvigorate Zdeno Chara’s play. The current defense is no threat to Stanley Cup blue line corps of yore, and they’ve certainly put Rask and the three other goalies who have suited up for Boston in the season’s first month in some pickles at times, but they appear to be an improved group from last year. When you consider that other than re-signing John-Michael Liles, there wasn’t one significant addition from outside the organization over the summer, that’s saying something.

The reality is- Rask has been able to elevate his play, reeling off 10 wins in his first 11 games for the first time in Bruins history since some guy named Gerry Cheevers did it 40 years ago. Cheevers, by the way, is a Hall of Fame goaltender and two-time Stanley Cup champion for the B’s, arguably the most identifiable goalie for the franchise given his iconic “stitches” mask and clutch play in the postseason (he is Boston’s all-time playoff wins leader ahead of other Cup winners such as Cecil “Tiny” Thompson, Frank “Mr. Zero” Brimsek and Tim Thomas). The skeptic will say- “Yeah, but it’s only been one month!” as a counter to Rask’s stellar play, but this blog doesn’t deal in “yeah, buts”- we call it like we see it and thus far, the 29-year-old Finn is the hands-down MVP and only one who’s posted a ‘W’ (repeat 10 times) to keep the Bruins above water. We’re not worried about what will happen if Rask slumps, because frankly- he’s playing some of the best hockey we’ve seen, and it’s giving both he and his teammates a major lift. If you want to know what elite NHL goaltending looks like, check out film on Rask’s starts this season.

Here’s where we probably should have just quit while we were ahead, but no- we/I just kept digging the hole deeper. To whit:

In the end, I just don’t feel that Rask is the right player for this team. His body language and at times perceived indifference doesn’t seem suited for the clear growing pains such a porous defense and inconsistent forward group is going to bring to the ice on any given night in Boston. It doesn’t make Rask a bad person, and he’s done some good things for the B’s in his tenure. Before the legion of Rask fans descend on this space to blast me for saying it- I truly believe a change of scenery would be best for him too. I have little doubt that with the right destination, he’d waive his own NMC to do so. Unfortunately, it also means Sweeney and Co. are selling low, but sometimes you have to swallow hard, cut your losses and do what you think is right for the club over the long haul.

Well, when you get it wrong, sometimes you just need to come out and take your lumps. No equivocating or attempts to rationalize or justify needed. Obviously Don Sweeney doesn’t need or want our help and he held the line, believing that Rask was capable of giving the team more than he did last year and even the season before.

Rask has been stellar, and how he goes, so will the Boston Bruins season. He’s talented enough to carry the team and he’s done it so far with the rest of the scoring balance on the lines starting to be restored and Torey Krug appearing to be getting closer to full health after a rough first 30 days. There are sure to be ups and downs, but as someone who floated the idea of trading Rask, here’s a mea culpa. Even if and when he inevitably comes down to earth a bit, Rask has shown what he’s capable of, and that has to instill Boston leadership with the belief that he can be a part of the solution going forward, even if the franchise might have to take a step or two backwards first.

Patience certainly can be a virtue and right now, the B’s are reaping the benefits of sticking by their man. At TSP, we’re big enough to admit that and offer our thanks that we weren’t in a position to sell low on Rask, which would have been a horrendous thing to do, especially if he was enjoying this renaissance in another team’s colors while the B’s took cents on the dollar for another high-profile trade.

So, there it is- we return you to your regularly scheduled Boston Bruins hockey season.