David Pastrnak is the player the Boston Bruins have been waiting for. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)
If you’re a Bruins fan, then it’s likely you’re indulging on a steady diet of Pasta.
Even if you’re cutting the carbs, is there anyone to be more excited about these days than David Pastrnak? With 17 goals in his first 18 games in 2018-19, we haven’t seen scoring this fierce in Boston since Cam Neely’s 50 goals in 44 games way back when yours truly was a senior in college during the 1993-94 season.
I was in Boston in January 2015 on the night then-GM Peter Chiarelli announced that the B’s would keep the Czech wunderkind in the NHL (thereby burning the 1st year of his ELC), and was lucky enough to sit down with him a day later to do the February 2015 New England Hockey Journal feature for that month.
Even back then, you just knew he was going to be special- he was humble, self-deprecating, and extremely hard-working, with Torey Krug pointing out that the 18-year-old was the first player on the ice at practice and the last one off. I still owe Eric Tosi (now with the Vegas Golden Knights) a debt of gratitude for not kicking me out of the B’s dressing room when he came in after most every other player had left. “Tos” hooked a brother up, and this remains one of my most favorite pieces written in 17 years covering the Bruins for the NEHJ.
Here it is- enjoy the journey back a little less than 4 years ago. He’s smashed expectations and to me- he’s the modern 21st century version of Rick Middleton.
Pasta! Rookie sensation makes a big splash in the Bay State
By Kirk Luedeke
(Originally published in New England Hockey Journal, Feb. 2015)
David Pastrnak’s pro hockey journey has only just begun.
It started out with bus rides to a small rink in a small, blue collar European city, followed by two years in Sweden before the young prodigy with the infectious smile and a world of potential arrived in Boston last fall. The 18-year-old Czech Republic native has energized the Bruins with his mix of talent and unbridled passion for the game.
He’s a rare find in the modern era of the NHL: a teenager who is immediately ready to contribute, yet somehow managed to slip past the decision-making cycles of those early-drafting teams who could have benefited from his services and maturity the most. Instead, the Bruins landed Pastrnak in the bottom five selections of last June’s NHL Entry Draft and in just eight months since, he’s managed carve out a niche with the big club.
On Jan. 15, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli announced that the kid everyone expected would be in Sweden playing pro hockey is staying in Boston beyond the 10-game window that will toll the first of a three-year Entry-Level Contract signed last July.
“Right now I’m going to be with the team but I just need to keep working hard,” said Pastrnak. “I try to play my best and don’t think about anything else, just try to do all for the team and just play hockey.”
For anyone who saw Pastrnak’s electrifying play in a two-game stretch where he potted four goals, the decision to keep him up was a no-brainer. The B’s now have an opportunity to develop their young prize while also getting some immediate bang for the proverbial buck.
“He’s been a real pleasant surprise in terms of his coachability and willingness to learn the other things that successful NHL players can do,” Bruins assistant GM Don Sweeney said recently. “We’re encouraging him to round out his game while still maintaining that 1-on-1 skill that he brings, but we need to have a little patience to see him get stronger. “
Although the 6-foot, 172-pound right wing is sure to face a season of peaks and valleys as he adjusts to the daily grind of the NHL, legions of Bruins fans clamoring for more skill in the Boston lineup have quickly embraced his electrifying style of play and obvious speed and puck skills as a man dying of thirst would take to an oasis in the desert.
The speedy Pastrnak has been forced to grow up fast in the face of personal tragedy. His own back story and the rapidity with which he’s emerged as the NHL’s youngest gun speaks to a remarkable talent, character and maturity that belies his youth.
Born and raised in the Czech Republic city of Havirov, Pastrnak grew up around the game. He said that his father, a former professional hockey player in their native country who also spent a couple of seasons in Germany, put him on skates for the first time at age two-and-a-half. By age three, he was playing competitive hockey.
But if Pastrnak’s love of the game today shines through in much of what he says and how he carries himself on and off the ice, he didn’t necessarily start out as a fanatical devotee of the sport.
“My mom told me that sometimes I didn’t want to go to practice so she (would) just leave me (at home),” Pastrnak said. “My parents were never like, ‘ you have to go practice’ they always asked me: ‘do I want to go practice?’ and I said yes or no, but if I said no, I stayed home. I think that’s an important thing too, because right now some parents are just pushing their children to play hockey all the time and that’s maybe how they stop liking it, you know?”
Pastrnak wanted to be a goalie when he first started playing, but the cost of equipment and his own father’s influence as a forward changed his mind pretty quickly in his early minor hockey days in Havirov.
Built as a coal-mining town after the Second World War, the city’s some 77,000 inhabitants work hard for all they have. With just one hockey rink in town and a single professional team (AZ Havirov) that plays a rung below the Czech Republic’s top league, it’s not surprising that those humble roots and beginning for Pastrnak have allowed him to identify with a lot of what Boston stands for and certainly a lot of the die-hard fans who come out to cheer on their Bruins.
“I live on the beginning of main-street going through the whole city and at the end of the street is (the only) hockey rink,” said Pastrnak. “I always went there on the usual bus with all the people because we didn’t have a car. It’s a small town and the only sport in Havirov is probably hockey, so we have a really good crowd and fans there.”
He began his hockey developmental path in his native Havirov, rising through the pro club’s corresponding minor system until age 16, when his father and family encouraged him to make the big step of leaving home for a higher level of competition in Sweden.
In 2012, he landed in Södertälje, an industrial city about 20 miles to the southwest of the Swedish capital Stockholm. Pastrnak’s new locale was known for being the headquarters and manufacturing base fro the Scania AB truck company as well as former tennis great Björn Borg’s hometown.
It was difficult for Pastrnak to leave when he did because his dad was battling cancer at the time. On the one hand, the teenager knew going to Sweden meant he would have a much better chance of landing on the NHL’s radar, but on the other, he didn’t know just how much time Milan Pastrnak had left. Unfortunately for David and the rest of his family, his dad lost the fight against the illness in May, 2013.
That personal loss saw the younger Pastrnak emerge as a force the following season, his draft year, opening eyes with his play with Södertälje’s top pro club, competing in Sweden’s Allsvenskan or second division. It was then that he dedicated every goal, every point to his father’s memory- beginning a personal practice of kissing his hand and pointing to the sky when he found the back of the net. As the calendar flipped over to 2014, Pastrnak had made the Czech Republic World Junior Championship team and was cruising to be selected in the June entry draft’s first round.
“At that time it was easy because my dad and my mom and everybody told me to just go there because it’s the best for you and just improve,” he said of leaving home. “It doesn’t matter how old I was –it was an important move and I don’t think I would be here if I didn’t go to Sweden.”
Riding the wave of a strong performance in the storied Under-20 tournament at the tender age of 17, Pastrnak soon took a big hit that knocked him out of the lineup for several months with a concussion. Although he was able to make it back to be a part of the Czech Republic’s silver medal-winning entry at the 2014 World Under-18 Championship in April, he wasn’t himself.
The lack of playing time in a stretch of about 80 days, a key period when NHL scouts are solidifying their views, and the mediocre performance in the event that left teams with their last impression of him didn’t help his case. More than one talent evaluator has said since that the missed games and subpar U18 showing factored into his draft day slide being projected as a top-15 pick entering the season.
Of course, there are positive stories of Pastrnak at this time, too. He arrived in Toronto for the NHL’s annual pre-draft combine, but the airline lost his bags, so he had to borrow clothes from fellow Czech and good friend Petr Vrana for his initial interviews. He took it all in stride, exhibiting none of the nervousness one would expect and made a positive impression on the teams he interviewed with.
Boston was one team in particular that was sold on his potential and attitude. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli spoke openly on the draft floor in Philadelphia after the team snagged Pastrnak with the 25th overall selection that the team tried to move up from that spot to get him. That attempt was unsuccessful, yet the B’s still got their man, and with hindsight being 20/20, they’re real glad they did.
Management wasted little time in getting Pastrnak signed to a three-year deal after he shined at their July prospects development camp, and made it clear to him that with some work, there was a pathway to the NHL as soon as the upcoming season.
“Since I’ve been drafted I just try to do the best what I can to show they picked the right player,” he said after a recent game in Boston. “And (it’s) just kind of motivation to show everybody, even the 24 teams in front of (Boston) which picked another guy, so it’s kind of motivating to work hard and show the mistake to everybody.”
A shoulder injury suffered in early training camp sessions prevented the team and its fans from getting an extended look at Pastrnak in the preseason, but he immediately established himself in Providence.
“It’s his foot speed, ability to make plays, putting defenses on their heels and second effort on the puck,” Providence Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said when asked about the things Pastrnak did in the AHL that will keep him in Boston. “He plays better away from the puck than when he got there in training camp. There’s guys who come down here and they take it to heart what you tell them and there’s other players who are like, ‘when I get (to Boston) I’m an offensive guy,’ and they don’t get it- there’s a Bruins way and that’s just the way it is.”
Growing up, Pastrnak idolized current Boston linemate David Krejci, 10 years his senior. With the announcement that the B’s were keeping the rookie beyond the audition window, Krejci commented about his new “Czech buddy,” a line rounded out by hulking left wing Milan Lucic, whose heavy game own Serbian roots make him a welcome part of the trio.
“It’s not set in stone that we’re going to play together for the rest of the year, but for now the last couple of games have been pretty strong games, so as long as we keep working on things in practices and working hard in games there’s a pretty good chance we’ll stick together,” Krejci said.
Beyond the obvious natural ability and gifted hands, Pastrnak’s intelligence and willingness to learn and improve his overall game have not only resonated with the coaching staff, but with the players in both Providence and Boston as well.
“He’s got all the talent in the world and I think that energizes this team when a guy like him comes in and he’s always smiling, he’s always have fun and he’s always looking to get better,” Boston defenseman Torey Krug said after a team practice. “I think he’s still on the ice right now- 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.”
He put up more than a point-per-game scoring clip in Providence to begin the season, earning an initial five-game stint in Boston near the end of November (1 assist). However, Pastrnak’s coming out party came in a two-goals each outburst against Philadelphia and Tampa Bay in back-to-back games last month. Even if he might not be a consistent presence on the scoresheet night in and night out, Pastrnak certainly showed why the B’s were so high on him after the draft.
“He’s definitely a great player,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said after Pastrnak’s ninth game, the win over the Rangers. “We all want him here and I think the decision that was made was pretty unanimous. As a coach, I want him on my team.”
Boston veterans like Patrice Bergeron, who was exactly where Pastrnak is some 12-plus seasons ago when he made the Bruins as an 18-year-old rookie, are happy for the youngster’s success and what he’s bringing to the team dynamic.
“I’m really happy for him and it’s well deserved,” said Bergeron. “Like I said before, he’s one of these kids that wants to learn, he wants to get better. 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 and we’re all here to help him and teach him the way I guess, but so far he’s been great and doesn’t need much help.”
The young boy who rode that bus down Havirov’s main street so many times is now a Boston Bruin, but the smile that could power the TD Garden jumbotron and his natural exuberance is very much ingrained in the fabric of who Pastrnak is as a player and person.
As he continues to grow and develop into the player his father always knew he would be, that natural love of the sport Milan Pastrnak helped foster in David will allow him to carve out his own legacy in Boston, one his dad would be proud of.
“I was there one day (being new to the NHL) and I was having a lot of fun, and I know he’s having a lot of fun,” Krug said. “He can help our team win right now and that’s why he’s here. That’s the biggest thing.”