Becoming Pastrnak

smells-like-victory

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)

 

 

On Brandon Carlo and other random thoughts on the 2-1 Boston Bruins

The Boston Bruins got a big win in Winnipeg Monday night and took four out of six points in their season-opening roadie, sandwiching a loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs with victories over the Columbus Blue Jackets and Jets.

Rookie defenseman Brandon Carlo netted his first NHL goal in the triumph last night, unleashing a handheld Howitzer from the slot up under the crossbar that former UMass-Lowell superstar and Mike Richter Award-winning goalie Connor Hellebuyck was powerless to stop. Here’s the goal and it’s a beauty for a 1st NHL tally: watch the way he slides up from the point to make himself available, as Andy Brickley would say and then drives the puck up high where mama hides the cookies.

Carlo has been a nom du jour in Boston circles since the B’s picked him 37th overall in the 2015 draft’s second round. It was a selection acquired from the NY Islanders in the trade for Johnny Boychuk (Minnesota defenseman Ryan Lindgren was the other second-rounder taken 49th overall last June) but the choice originally belonged to the Philadelphia Flyers, who forked it over at the 2014 trade deadline in exchange for Andy MacDonald.

The Bruins certainly look to be getting the better end of the deal these days.

Not only is Carlo a 6-foot-5-inch defender but he’s just 19 years old and has looked far more poised and refined than we gave him credit for. There are sure to be ups and downs for any rookie defender, especially one who’s skating on the top pairing with Zdeno Chara north of 20 minutes per night, but given Carlo’s physical attributes and accomplished defensive/shutdown play coming into his first full pro hockey season, it’s a solid bet that the peaks will outnumber the valleys with this kid.

As for Chara- he’ll turn 40 this season but there’s no need to throw dirt on his playing career’s grave just yet. He’s been effective in the early going and seems to be thriving with his young partner, as both have the size and skill to keep opponents away from the prime scoring areas, while also having the talent and ability to provide offense. The Boston captain had a goal negated on replay last night, but then fired a puck into the Winnipeg empty net after Carlo’s third period tally gave the B’s the insurance they needed for David Pastrnak’s team-leading fourth goal to stand up as the winner.

Chara has been a popular scapegoat over the last two seasons because he’s an aging veteran who by virtue of his outstanding play for so many years, was expected to perform better than he has (especially after a right knee injury suffered early in the 2014-15 season- he’s not been the same mobility-wise and it’s the new normal with Chara). There’s truth in that, but when you improve the supporting cast around future Hall of Famers in the twilight of their career as Chara is, it can make all the difference. It’s only been three games, but Chara and Carlo make an excellent pairing because they complement one another nicely. Unless their play falls off a cliff, the young buck is in a spot to learn a great deal from the legend. It reminds me a lot of what Kyle McLaren was exposed to when he made the Bruins as an 18-year-old in 1995-96 and skated with Ray Bourque. B’s fans will hope that Carlo ends up bringing a great deal more than McLaren did, but the latter was a top-10 pick in 1995, so more was expected of him. Carlo’s contributions, impressive as they are, fall into a pleasant surprise and bonus category, simply because he was the 11th defenseman drafted in 2015. The reality with Carlo is- he wasn’t supposed to be in Boston at 19 and playing 23 minutes-plus while contributing at both ends (he’s a +7 on top of it all with a positive Corsi rating), but we’ll take it. Free chicken never tasted so good.

It’s time to own up to the fact that TSP was far too conservative in our projections of Carlo. There has been a lot of hype surrounding the pick, and hype isn’t always a good thing, but to the former Tri-City American’s credit, he took advantage of injuries to Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid to establish himself as being worthy of sticking in the NHL. Sometimes, that’s what it takes, because veterans, by virtue of their one-way contracts and experience, will keep positions on a roster over the younger guys because of the economics and options. In this case, Carlo likely would have gone down to Providence, or very well could have begun the season as the seventh defender and a healthy scratch if not for the loss of two right-shot defenders before the start of the new season.

Sometimes, a key factor to solving a larger problem is right in front of you. Sometimes, it takes unforeseen events like injuries to open that window of opportunity to see it, but to Carlo’s credit- he’s shown a lot of poise and maturity. Again- it’s very early in the season, but his play has given the GM options, even if and when Miller and McQuaid return to the lineup. What’s more, you have other impressive young talents in the system: Rob O’Gara is getting big league games under his belt, and looks like he belongs- even if he might not be making the tangible impact on Boston’s fortunes right now that Carlo has. Matt Grzelcyk is playing with speed and confidence down in Providence. Jakub Zboril is playing more like a top-15 pick should in Saint John, and there is a lot of excitement surrounding BU defender Charlie McAvoy now that his NCAA season is underway. He’s been relatively quiet thus far, but a breakout performance is coming- just you watch. Jeremy Lauzon is on the shelf due to a concussion suffered in recent action, and according to his team- there is no timetable for his return. That’s a downer.

There’s reason for excitement down the road, but as impressive as some of those names might be, they are still unknowns. Carlo, on the other hand, is making himself into more of a known quantity each night. And, given the way things are going, it looks like he’s earning more and more trust and a prominent role from the Boston coaching staff.

It was tough to see Boychuk go, but even the most ardent critics of the trade (and granted- it was far more about the timing of it all and the expectations for that 2014-15 Bruins club than anything else), have to be encouraged that Carlo is giving Boston some tangible returns so soon.

The book on Carlo is far from written, but as the old cliché goes: so far, so good.

***

The top line of Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and David Backes has been carrying the offense in the early going, and somethings got to change if the Bruins expect to keep adding W’s to the ledger.

Dominic Moore tallied his first goal as a Bruin off a nice feed from Tim Schaller, making his Boston debut. Fellow Providence College product Noel Acciari started the play by outworking the Winnipeg defender behind the net to chip it to Schaller who found Moore alone and off to Hellebuyck’s right for a quick snipe.

Unfortunately, the B’s have gotten bupkus from the David Krejci-Ryan Spooner connection, and that needs to change. Austin Czarnik excited watchers with his speed and hands in the first two games, but neither Matt Beleskey nor Jimmy Hayes could get anything going in terms of goal production, so right now- Claude Julien and his braintrust need to figure out how to shake things up and generate some secondary scoring.

Patrice Bergeron’s expected return will move Backes down to Krejci’s right wing and that will help. Danton Heinen hasn’t been bad- he’s made some neat plays, but as said on this space many times- his game is not flashy. We had someone on Twitter say “Heinen hasn’t caught my attention,” and that is precisely the point. He’s a cerebral, playmaking winger who has made several impressive passes and plays in the face of a big hit or effective forecheck, but because he’s not dynamic, few are noticing. Unfortunately for Heinen, in a results-oriented business, he’s expected to produce, so he’ll likely be moved down the roster (or perhaps down to Providence) to try and work out the kinks. There’s a lot of potential here, and at TSP we recognize it…but if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to see it, does it make a sound?

***

Third year forward David Pastrnak is getting. After. It.

He tallied his first career four-point game (2g, 2a) against Columbus and has scored in every game thus far.

On National Pasta Day, “Pasta” threw the puck to the net and it went in off of Winnipeg defenseman Toby Enstrom. It was a shot that was “al dente” if you please, but Pastrnak is breaking out as multiple analysts thought he might. He’s got to stay healthy, but he’s playing with top talent and he’s shown progress in his physical maturity to go with a work ethic that was already outstanding when he arrived.

At some point, he’ll hit some dry spells, but for now- Pastrnak is delivering the offense that this team so desperately needs, especially with the gaping void where the second and third lines are in the early going.

Of course, the downside to all of this success is the second contract and money that Pastrnak’s agent will be looking for, but all in due time.

***

Tuukka Rask was superb against Winnipeg after allowing the breakaway goal to Blake Wheeler. The former Bruin came out of the penalty box and got behind the Boston defense before twisting Rask around and burying the puck. Moore came back with the equalizer just 19 seconds later, but Rask got the job done after that, denying and frustrating the Jets attack. This is precisely what the Bruins need from their $7 million goaltender, so he’s 2-0 this season with room for improvement, but credit where due- he’s getting it done. Oh, and he became the first Bruins goalie in franchise history to post two assists in a game, so there’s that. Not bad. He only needs 13 more assists to break the single-season mark jointly held by Grant Fuhr and Tom Barrasso.

***

Krejci and Torey Krug are taking heat for their early season struggles. Fans know they had significant offseason surgery and their original timetables to return to the lineup were not decisive in pointing to them being ready to go on opening night, yet they made it.

Now, a great deal is expected of the duo and that’s a fair point to bring up, but the game is not played by robots who magically come back at 100 percent. If they weren’t ready, it would have meant even more untested guys in the lineup and there would have been critics coming out of the woodwork.

We’re allowing a grace period to take into account that neither player was able to do their standard offseason conditioning and training, coupled with a natural confidence test as they work through the surgically repaired hip and shoulder and get a more solid footing.

Neither is performing at their normal level, but now is not the time to pile on. We’ll give it more time and call it like we see it going forward. The good news for the team is that the record is 2-1 and not 0-3…it doesn’t alter the fact that the B’s aren’t getting the high level of play that fans are accustomed to, but that can all change. We tend to make perfection the enemy of good enough. That’s life and the Internet age with pro sports, but no one should be pressing the panic button yet.

2016-17 Boston Bruins preview series 2: the Right Wings

David Pastrnak is the player the Boston Bruins have been waiting for. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

David Pastrnak is the player the Boston Bruins have been waiting for. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

After a bit of a hiatus, we’re back to continue the 2016-17 Boston Bruins season preview by breaking down each position and analyzing where the B’s sit going into the new hockey campaign.

We started out with the centers, and if you haven’t seen it yet and listened to the companion podcast, you can check that out here.

Today, we’re looking at the right wings- another pretty solid position of strength for the B’s. Loui Eriksson is gone, having signed with the Vancouver Canucks on July 1, but the B’s signed David Backes from the St. Louis Blues on the same day. The conventional thought is that Backes will remain in his capacity as a center, but with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci solidly established as the 1-2 punch up the middle, it makes quite a bit of sense that the B’s will take their 5-year, $30 million investment and put him over on the right side with Bergeron and left wing Brad Marchand, who tallied 37 goals last season.

Expected to skate on the right side with Krejci is fellow Czech and David- David Pastrnak. After an electrifying NHL debut in the latter half of the 2014-15 NHL season, the 25th overall pick in 2014 struggled out of the gate last year and then was felled by a foot injury that cost him about 30 games and much of his offensive jump and effectiveness. This is an important season for the David Squared duo, as a healthy and productive Krejci and Pastrnak will be needed to take some of the pressure off of the top line.

Third line is where there could be some opportunities for change. Right now, Dorchester native Jimmy Hayes is the guy to fill that spot on paper. Even with the disappointing season a year ago, Hayes should not be written off yet. Consistency was the biggest thing with the 6-5, 215-pound former second-round pick in 2008. When on his game, Hayes is capable of scoring goals and adding offense both off the rush and in close where he uses his gigantic frame and long arms to pounce on loose pucks. Hayes was an easy scapegoat last year, and he does need to own the fact that when the team needed his offensive production the most, he went largely MIA down the stretch. Having said that, he’s young (turns 27 in November) and talented enough to raise his game and surpass the 20-goal mark, but he’ll have to get back to basics and start with the little things that brought him success in Florida, when he tallied his career-best 19 goals in 2014-15. When you look at Hayes’ possession stats, there’s a case to be made that he’s more effective than he gets credit for, and given his contract structure when compared to others around the NHL, he didn’t exactly embarrass himself. Hayes is never going to be a top-level player, but he has more to offer and if the B’s can get it from him this season, he can be an asset.

If Hayes falters, rookie forward Danton Heinen could fill the void on that third line. A fourth-round pick in 2014, Heinen spent two highly productive NCAA seasons with Denver University before turning pro with Boston last April. The British Columbia native by way of the BCHL’s Surrey Eagles is a slick, cerebral playmaking wing who can skate on each of the forward positions, but saw his most production as the RW on the famed “Pacific Rim Line” last season with Toronto free agent signing Trevor Moore and Sharks second-rounder Dylan Gambrell. Heinen could be best served by playing a lot in the AHL, but of all the prospect forwards in camp this month, he’s the one guy who has the best mix of skill, maturity and a three-zone game- all of which should combine to impress Claude Julien and the other Boston coaches (Joe Sacco, Jay Pandolfo, Bruce Cassidy).

On the fourth line, the B’s added free agent forward Riley Nash in July, and as a rugged, versatile forward, the 27-year-old right-shooting former first-rounder in 2007 is good for about 20-30 points while playing that grinding, checking style that is valuable on the bottom unit. There’s not much to get excited about here, but the former Cornell Big Red point-per-game guy gives you NHL experience, physicality and the example that will help to build team cohesion.

Like Backes, we previewed Peter Mueller at center, but in all likelihood, he’ll compete for a roster spot at the RW position as the eighth overall pick in 2006 has spent more of his pro career flanked out wide as opposed to playing in the middle. Temper expectations with him, but if he plays well and earns a contract, his presence allows B’s GM some flexibility to add assets in a potential trade deal for a much-needed defenseman. Mueller has the size and hands to be an effective bottom-six player, but one only knows how he’ll look after spending the last three seasons in Europe. At one point, he looked like an NHL star, so it’s not a bad risk to take as a PTO invite to camp- nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Other right wings in the mix vying for NHL jobs are Seth Griffith, Brian Ferlin and Tyler Randell– all impact performers for the Providence Bruins. Of the three, Randell is the one who is best positioned to come out of camp with a job- he scored six goals in 27 NHL games last season- his first taste of big league action after being drafted in 2009 (and shot an unsustainable 33.3 percent as well). He’s rugged and tough- even though he lacks speed, the B’s can carry him as a 13th forward and plug and play him into the roster as needed. I like that he showed enough to stick around long after other players likely would have been given up on.

Some of the prospects that fans are eagerly looking forward to are 45-goal man Zach Senyshn, drafted 15th overall in 2015. Although he’s struggled with mono and a recent emergency appendectomy that will cost him the rookie tournament portion of camp. He’s big, fast, skilled and ready to take a big next step forward. This year is probably not Zach’s year to make it in Boston, but that’s not a knock on him- not everyone can play in the NHL as a teen, but the patience will likely pay off- he’s a player.

Also talked Swedish forward Oskar Steen, who is listed as a center but plays right wing and projects as a wing at the pro level in North America. Steen is a Bruins-type of player and was a favorite of scout and former Boston cult hero P.J. Axelsson.

Also not covered in the podcast, but Notre Dame right wing Anders Bjork had a very good sophomore season, leading the Fighting Irish in scoring (35 points in as many games). He’s a gritty, fast, high-energy player, but also showed off some impressive offense. Watch for the Bruins to try and sign him this spring to avoid him going back to school for a fourth year and becoming a free agent in 2018. It will be interesting to see what the Wisconsin native does.

Justin Hickman also has promise as a second-year pro as a big power forward who can bang and add some offense after struggling a bit to find his niche. Don’t count the former Seattle Thunderbirds captain out- he was a sought-after undrafted free agent and shows a willingness to scrap and fight for his team.

Now, you’ve read the post- listen to the podcast (I also talk a little 2017 NHL draft and Shane Bowers)! Will be back in this week to break down the left wings next. Thanks for reading/listening.

 

 

World Junior Championship tourney underway- notes on B’s prospects in Helsinki

David Pastrnak, Emil Johansson and Zane McIntyre take a break during 2014 Bruins development camp (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

David Pastrnak, Emil Johansson and Zane McIntyre take a break during 2014 Bruins development camp (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

The 2016 World Junior (Under-20) Championship showcase is underway from Finland, as the tradition kicks off annually on the day after Christmas, better known in Canada and other parts of the world as Boxing Day.

In a rare twist, USA took on Canada, normally a match in the 2-week tourney’s round robin round reserved for New Year’s Eve, scoring a solid 4-2 victory thanks in large part to the stellar goaltending of Carolina Hurricanes prospect Alex Nedeljkovic (2nd round- 37th overall in 2014) and some opportunistic scoring by USA after falling behind 1-0 in the second period. The Americans overcame an Alex DeBrincat spearing match penalty late in the opening frame that could have put them behind the 8-ball, killing the 5-minute period between the first and second periods. After Islanders 1st-rounder Mathew Barzal scored on a jailbreak play to give Canada the first lead, Senators prospect Colin White (Hanover, Massachusetts) answered for USA. Questionable power play chances yielded goals by both sides (Zach Werenski– Blue Jackets and Dylan Strome– Coyotes). With time winding down in a 2-2 game, a Louis Belpedio (Wild- third round in 2014) shot from the point was inadvertently deflected into the Canada net by Red Wings prospect (and undrafted free agent) D Joey Hicketts past his own netminder, Mason McDonald (Calgary- 2nd round 34th overall in 2014). 2016 NHL draft top candidate Auston Matthews got an insurance goal after a puck squeaked through McDonald and lay near the goal line for the easy tap-in to close out the scoring.

In other games, Finland hammered Belarus (6-0), Russia beat the Czech Republic in a 2-1 shootout in a game where defense and the goaltending shined, while Sweden took vengeance against the Swiss by an 8-3 score but lost key players William Nylander (Leafs- 1st round, 8th overall in 2014) and Adrian Kempe (Kings- 1st round, 29th overall) to injuries. Swiss forward Chris Egli was suspended three games for his vicious blindside check to Nylander, knocking him out of the game with what is believed to be a concussion. The latest report has Sweden keeping him off skates for a ‘few days’ but hopeful the high-end forward can be back by the quarter final round.

The Boston Bruins have seven players at the tournament, with GM Don Sweeney announcing Saturday between the first intermission of the team’s 6-3 loss to Buffalo at home that David Pastrnak is being released to play for the Czech Republic and will be available when the 28 December NHL holiday roster freeze is lifted.

The Bruins have the following players at the WJC, which ties Arizona for the most players league-wide:

USA

Anders Bjork, F (5th round, 146th overall- 2014) ’96- last year of eligibility

Brandon Carlo, D (2nd round, 37th overall- 2015) late ’96 – last year of eligibility

Ryan Donato, F (2nd round, 56th overall- 2014) ’96- last year of eligibility

Czech Republic

David Pastrnak, F (1st round, 25th overall- 2014) ’96- last year of eligibility

Daniel Vladar, G (3rd round, 75th overall- 2015) 2017 WJC eligible

Jakub Zboril, D (1st round, 13th overall- 2015) 2017 WJC eligible

Sweden

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, F (2nd round, 45th overall- 2015) late ’96- last year of eligibility

Defenseman Jeremy Lauzon was one of two final cuts for Team Canada. Watch for him, Zach Senyshyn, Jesse Gabrielle all to be staple players on Canada in 2017, when both are still eligible for the tournament.

David Pastrnak is the player the Boston Bruins have been waiting for. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

David Pastrnak is the player the Boston Bruins have been waiting for. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

On Pastrnak being released to the WJC

You may have seen me commenting on this on Twitter, so I want to clarify my position on a forum that allows me more than 140 characters:

While good news for the Czech Republic and Pastrnak, this is a risky move for the Bruins in that they stand the most to lose should something happen to him over there to affect his availability for his NHL going forward.

Too often, I think the WJC has gained an almost mythical status in the minds of hockey fans in this day and age- it’s a symbol of status that often drives opinions and perceptions of players both positively and negatively. Like some kind of video game, it seems that the more players a team has at the WJC, the bigger the bragging rights fans can claim, even though merely being a part of the carnival atmosphere is no guarantor of future NHL success. I get it- because of the prestige factor associated with the U20 WJC as the premier global showcase for the best hockey talent, many of whom have either already tasted the NHL or will be there soon, there is an expectation that if a player isn’t there, then that means something is wrong with them. Conversely, if a player is named to his country’s WJC roster, their status tends to get elevated, rightly or wrongly, and in turn, a player’s performance is often scrutinized and magnified in a way that either over-hypes them or leads to negative perceptions of their future NHL chances.

What bothers me about Pastrnak going to the WJC is that he is coming off an injury that caused him to miss 24 NHL games after he took a hard shot off the skate and received a fractured foot (or “bone bruise” as reported). On the one hand- the B’s want to rehab him and the WJC provides a way to do that. It also exposes him to risk of either aggravation of the foot or possibly another injury. To those who have tweeted at me about the “safer” aspects of the larger ice surface and more skill/finesse at the WJC, go look at film on the Egli hit on Nylander yesterday in the Sweden-Swiss match and take note. Boston accepts all the risk here- Pastrnak is now playing games that won’t help the Bruins in the standings (nor would Providence, but the similar system would be beneficial to working him back into mental shape for the big club) but he’s also playing for coaches with different priorities/agendas than Claude Julien and Bruce Cassidy over in North America.

Another argument I’ve heard is about how important the “experience” at the WJC will be for Pastrnak. Okay. Assuming that is the case, how is playing in his third WJC going to give him any more experience than he got when he appeared at the same tourney at age 17 and then again a year ago when Boston released him at 18? He played only about half a season in the AHL a year ago before going up to the NHL, so the argument that the talent and overall experience he’d get in the WJC vs. being in Providence at this stage of his career is certainly debatable. You can make good cases for each scenario, but the whole “He *needs* to be at the WJC to develop properly” is hogwash. Nor is it a matter of this being his only chance to skate for his country there- he’s already done it. Twice. And you can bet he’ll do it again, perhaps as soon as the Men’s World Championship, or at the next World Cup of Hockey.

In the end- what I think doesn’t matter, because the Bruins made the decision to send him. I suspect they are acceding to his own wishes, and I get Pastrnak’s desire to play in the WJC versus going to the AHL with the chance to play for his country providing him with a compelling alternative. They might see the WJC as a better opportunity for him to get himself back on track after missing considerable time than riding the buses in Providence will. Perhaps the B’s feel that by doing this- they are acting in good faith and will only solidify their relationship with the player who by most accounts, is probably being groomed to one day replace Patrice Bergeron as the face of the franchise. It’s completely understandable. However, what do the Bruins get if something happens to Pastrnak in his 10-day stint overseas? The answer is- absolutely nothing…aside from blistering questions and second-guesses that will swiftly follow if the team suffers a setback with their prized asset in a game he didn’t really need to be playing, some 3,000 miles away from Boston.

It’s all about risk management here, and the Bruins obviously feel it’s the right thing to do. So, we’ll cross our fingers and hope they are proven right.

B’s WJC prospect notes and updates

Anders Bjork, USA- One of the last cuts a year ago, Bjork is a top two-way forward at Notre Dame, known for his speed, hockey IQ and playmaking skills from the wing position. He played a typically solid game yesterday, showing off his effectiveness on the forecheck to deny Canada puck carriers time and space. He uses his speed to close quickly and has a quick stick to force turnovers or clog passing lanes with. He’s a highly confident, effective penalty killer- he leveraged his vision and instincts to be in the right place and prevent Canada from collapsing USA’s formations and exploiting the extended power play time on the DeBrincat major. You won’t see a great deal of offense from Bjork in the pros, but he’s the kind of player NHL clubs win with.

Brandon Carlo (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Brandon Carlo (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Brandon Carlo, USA- He was beast yesterday defensively, using his 6-5 frame and long reach to repeatedly deny lanes to the American net all game long. Guys as big and mobile as the WHL veteran from Colorado is don’t grow on trees, and he played an effective game; making good decisions, maintaining his gaps effectively and electing the right times to play the body and puck. What I like about Carlo is that he doesn’t think he’s something he isn’t- he plays a refined, disciplined game positionally- not taking himself out of the play to score a big hit, nor pinching up in the offensive zone if a play isn’t there. He’s smooth and effective- he has all the tools to evolve into a very good shutdown defender at the NHL level in the not-too-distant future. Now for the bad news… While I recognize and respect his defensive acumen, I don’t see much in the way of consistent offense from Carlo that would lead me to believe he’s going to be a legitimate two-way threat at the NHL level. He’ll chip in with points on occasion, but his repeated missed shots from the point yesterday illustrate the kind of work he has yet to do on his game. I don’t see the vision or creativity once he’s in the offensive zone to be a real No. 1 defender at the highest level, but he’s only 19, so maybe that comes out in time. As far as the game against Canada goes- he played about as well defensively as you can ask, and that’s what matters most, as it translated into a key aspect of USA’s tone-setting win.

I would only caution folks to slow the roll on the hype train and understand that he has the look of an NHL player for sure- but how much of an impact (I’m studiously avoiding the use of the term ‘upside’ in case you hadn’t noticed) he’ll have is still very much a question mark at this point. I’m not down on Carlo at all- he’s a great kid with a bright future. But for those who don’t see him but hear all these glowing reports about him- just trying to keep things in perspective. In Carlo’s case- I would be thrilled to have him wrong on this score, but when my 2016 Boston Bruins prospect ranking comes out in the New England Hockey Journal next week, you’ll understand why Carlo is not in my top-6.

Ryan Donato, F- I’ll be brief. It was not a good look for the Dexter School prep star and Harvard freshman. He seemed to struggle with the pace and might have been a victim of nerves in his first-ever WJC game against an opponent like Canada. His ice time reflected that, as he didn’t get the regular shifts to work himself into a groove and when he was out there, he made some noticeable mistakes.

Donato is an excellent prospect who often times pays a price for the perception of prep hockey and where it ranks in the developmental pecking order. A sensational season in 2013-14, and one in which I would have been fine with taking him at the end of the first round, saw him slip down to the end of the second. Even with that, I saw grumblings about him being drafted there, which I completely did not agree with. Conversely, getting Donato at 56 overall was a fine value pick for Boston if not one that will take time to develop and see the payoff for.

Ted’s eldest son is a hockey savant- his offensive hockey sense and scoring instincts are second to none. He’s not a burner like his dad was, but he’s bigger and more physically gifted to skate in the modern NHL. He’s off to a fine start in Cambridge, a year after a down season at Dexter was then punctuated by a superb finish in the USHL with the Omaha Lancers.

In other words- just as a lot of folks were eager to jump on Twitter yesterday to sing Carlo’s praises, there is absolutely no reason to pile on Donato for his subpar showing. It’s one game in one tournament. The thing to watch going forward with Donato is to see how coach Ron Wilson and the USA coaches use him and if he can settle in and find a way to do what he does best- bring offense. Given the role he had yesterday, however, that’s a tall order for any player.

Czech Republic

Daniel Vladar, G- Was a non-dress yesterday as Capitals prospect Vitek Vanecek (2nd round, 39th in 2014) got the start with Ales Stezka backing up. Vanecek played very well in a 2-1 shootout loss to Russia, so Vladar will likely have to wait for his chance to play if he even sees a sniff of action. His role will likely be to carry the mail in 2017 if he continues to progress in his development this season.

Jakub Zboril, D- Boston’s top pick in June last just 10:17 into the contest when he was assessed a match penalty and ejected for boarding on a questionable hit that looked worse in real time than it was. He was given 25 minutes in penalties on the play, but no suspension is forthcoming.

Sweden

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, F- The second-rounder scored Sweden’s sixth goal in an 8-3 rout at 12:50 of the second period. No scouting report notes as I did not see the game, but it’s a good sign for the BU center, who tends to be more of a passer/playmaker than a finisher.

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson aka "JFK"

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson aka “JFK”

I will follow this blog post up later with some observations on some of the 2016 NHL draft hopefuls I saw in action yesterday.

 

 

 

 

B’s-Caps game notes: Pasta night at TD Garden

The Boston Bruins played their second preseason game of the exhibition schedule, getting both goals compliments of David Pastrnak in a 2-1 OT win against the visiting Washington Capitals.

We got our first game look at new Bruin Matt Beleskey, who skated on a line with Czech Davids- Krejci (with both helpers on the goals) and Pastrnak.

There wasn’t a great deal of flow to this one, and the game was scoreless in the first 40 minutes before getting some offense in the final frame. Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre combined to make 26 stops and secure the win, making the B’s 2-0 in exhibition play.

Here are some notes on the players who caught my attention:

Goaltenders

Malcolm Subban- Solid outing for the 21-year-old, as he stopped all 17 of the shots he faced in 29:43 of action. He seemed to be a little hopped up at first, but settled in nicely and made one memorable shorthanded stop on Jay Beagle, showcasing his natural blend of quickness and power. Subban has come a long way from when he first turned pro and was all over the place technique-wise. He still plays deep in his net, but when you’re as fluid and fast as he is, it isn’t as much of a glaring deficiency as some would have you believe. Even with the 100 percent save percentage- there are still plenty of things to work on, and there’s no better way to do that than down in the AHL as opposed to sitting at the end of the Boston bench.

Zane McIntyre- He was beaten on what appeared to be a screen by Nate Schmidt’s seeing eye shot during a Caps PP but other than that, the first year pro handled business, stopping 9 of 10 shots he faced. He’s a lot more together stylistically than he used to be, employing better economy of motion in his game and letting the puck hit him more than he did earlier in his junior and college careers. The NCAA’s top goalie has not looked out of place so far, but it’s pretty evident that he’s not ready to be an NHL backup and will benefit from the playing time and seasoning in the minors.

Defense-

Linus Arnesson- He looked very good in both rookie games and had another effective, unspectacular outing tonight. He’s a smooth skater who plays with a maturity and poise beyond his years when it comes to his own end. He understands positioning and can get the puck out quickly. I don’t see much in the way of an attacking defender who will put up a lot of points, but he can get up the ice well enough and will be able to evolve into an effective penalty killer because of his feet and defensive awareness. He is what he is, I think- just a solid defenseman who will give you a good effort and consistent, steady play. He doesn’t need to be rushed into the NHL lineup, nor should he be viewed as a real difference maker when he eventually arrives in Boston. Put simply- you win with guys like Arnesson, but fans should avoid making him into something he is not: a top-level two-way D.

Torey Krug- The Michigander was wearing an ‘A’ on his sweater and that will soon become a permanent accessory on his game attire. He’s skating with a lot of confidence and bringing that edge that is important for him even if he doesn’t possess ideal NHL size. With Krug it’s about smarts and effort- he’s getting better with his reads and making the right decisions under pressure, and nobody will outwork him for a puck, even if they might be able to win a physical battle. I could go on and on, but won’t- he’s going to keep improving and for those who haven’t figured it out yet- be a core contributor to Boston’s fortunes for a long time. He led all blue liners in ice time tonight with nearly 24 minutes and his regular season time will surely increase as he eases into that top-four role he’s earning each day with his work on and off the ice.

Kevan Miller- If people are looking for excuses to write off this free agent find and former captain at the University of Vermont, Miller isn’t giving much room there. He played his brand of physical hockey, keeping things simple and preventing the Caps from getting much going offensively with some hits and good breakups. The Californian is a no-frills, bottom-pairing kind of guy, but he’s tough and cheap. He’s back after missing the second half of the year with shoulder surgery.

Joe Morrow- I liked his game tonight. Morrow is at his best when using his piston-like stride to vault up the ice and push the offensive pace from the back end. He’s got to do a better job of hitting the net with that big point drive of his, but you can see the way he can make tough passes with relative ease and Morrow brings the much needed mobility and puckhandling skills to the defense if he can make the big club and stick.

Forwards

David Pastrnak- Scored Boston’s regulation goal with a flourish after taking a Krejci pass and beating Philipp Grubauer with a nifty backhand. He followed that up by scoring the OT goal in 3-on-3 play just 12 seconds in, securing the win. He’s tracking to be a special player- he’s got that rare blend of natural talent plus the attitude, work ethic and charisma to be a franchise presence in Boston. We saw it in flashes last year as a rookie. This time around, as long as he can stay healthy, he’ll score with more regularity, but the big breakout is on the short horizon. It’s hard not to get caught up in the hype with this kid (and he is a kid- just turned 19 in May), but if you’ve been around him for just 30 seconds, you can see why the B’s treasure him (and why, in 2017- they’ll be opening up the checkbook- big time).

Anton Blidh- What is Claude Julien to do? This guy looks like the real deal for your bottom line right wing position, even with the veterans under contract. The Swedish sixth-rounder in 2013 brings a lot of speed, tenacity and relentless forechecking to the mix, even if he may lack the offensive toolbox to be a top-six forward at this level. He was grinding it out early, drawing penalties and attracting notice for his verve and finishing of checks when there wasn’t a lot of flow to this game. Because he can be sent down without being placed on waivers, chances are- Blidh (pronounced “bleed”) will begin the year in Providence. However, if he keeps playing like this, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make the team as a 13th forward.

Austin Czarnik- Carried over his strong showing at the rookie tournament in Buffalo in this one. Little waterbug is so fast, skilled with the puck but shows off the little things away from the puck as well that should endear him to the Boston and Providence coaches. As a player who was skipped over in the draft because of his size, he’s going to have to put in twice the effort, but if the early signs are any indication, Czarnik will be an immediate impact performer for Butch Cassidy and might even play his well into an appearance or two with Boston sooner than anyone thinks. With the team so deep with centers, his time might have to be down the road, but plenty to like here.

Zach Senyshyn- He didn’t have any points tonight, but I continue to like with the big, eager winger brings to the table. With his long, loping stride- he’s rangy and gets up and down the ice so well that he can catch defenders flat-footed if they don’t watch their gaps with him. The Soo Greyhound just needs to keep things simple- take pucks to the net and do the things he’s known for and that got him 26 goals playing on the lower lines in the OHL. The more people who see him play, the less we hear about what a “reach” he was because you can’t teach his size or willingness.

Alex Khokhlachev- It was a mixed bag for him. I thought he looked pretty poor on Boston’s first power play opportunity but he seemed to relax as the game went on and showed his talent off in flashes. Again- flashes aren’t enough, here- he’s got to find ways to produce and pointing to the linemates is just making excuses at some point. If you want to beat out the guys ahead of you on the depth chart, you have to leave the coaches with little choice but to keep you- has he really done that in the two games thus far? Not enough to the degree needed, in my view.

David Krejci- If the B’s get this healthy version of their longtime top-2 center, then they’re on the right track this year. You figured he would come back hungry and motivated after last year essentially being a wash and he was on it tonight, with two primary assists on the only goals his team produced. Now, we’ve seen just 4 goals in two exhibition wins for the B’s, but in this one, you wanted to see some offense from the club’s top unit and they delivered. It’s pretty cool to think that when a young David Pastrnak was looking up at his room’s wall in Havirov and seeing a photo of Krejci pinned up there, he probably never imagined he would one day be getting the puck direct from his hockey hero. That one is just entering his prime and the other has a world of talent to take full advantage is an exciting thought for Boston fans.

Justin Hickman- Dropped the gloves in the second period against Tyler Lewington and scored the takedown after some punches exchanged, but that’s the toughness and presence that the former Seattle Thunderbirds captain was expected to bring. His skill is a work in progress, and he’ll likely not be a major factor down in Providence this season as he’ll gravitate towards the grunt work as he gets acclimated to that level, but he skates well enough and brings the kind of physicality that the B’s value. Watch for him to develop into a Providence fan fave pretty quickly, and he’ll score some nice goals down there, even if they don’t come in bunches.

Frank Vatrano- He came close to scoring in the first when the B’s were on the PP with that shot of his…ooh la la. What can you say? The kid’s release and heavy, accurate drive is just sublime. He’s getting quicker and will round out the rest of his game as he’s allowed to develop in the minors. B’s just might have a real homegrown diamond-in-the-rough here.

Matt Beleskey- Oof. He’ll get better, but it looked like he was trying a little too hard. He did win kudos early in going to Krejci’s defense in a scrum- he’s not afraid to stick his nose in and defend teammates even if he doesn’t have Milan Lucic’s size or toughness. Needs to go have fun, loosen up on the stick and cut down on the turnovers/forcing of the play. You see the chemistry that Krejci and Pastrnak already have- he’ll benefit from it too, if he just lets the play come to him a bit and doesn’t overthink it. This is why we have a preseason schedule…

The Pasta Principle: Pastrnak primed for year 2

David Pastrnak is the player the Boston Bruins have been waiting for. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

David Pastrnak is the player the Boston Bruins have been waiting for. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

David Pastrnak is back in Boston, as he showed up this week for the annual pre-training camp captain’s practice sessions, which sees the gradual return to the ice of Bruins players.

Pastrnak’s arrival so soon (we’re still a little more than 2 weeks from the time the veteran players are required to report) is an indicator of the young forward’s seriousness, though it’s not all that surprising to those who know him. Last year, Torey Krug went out of his way to talk about how dedicated the NHL’s youngest player was (he didn’t turn 19 until May- a month after the B’s packed up and headed home), showing a maturity beyond his years.

Some people like to talk about how hard they work, but Pastrnak goes out and does it. When character guys like Krug notice that, then you know you’re doing something right.

I said in my 2016 Bruins season preview series that Pastrnak is the player Boston has been waiting for, and that’s more and more evident by the day. He’s arguably the most purely talented player on the roster, but his humility, enthusiasm and love for what he does provides the best possible example for everyone around him, from rookie to veteran alike.

He’s up to about 180 pounds, which will better help him to endure the rigors of the 82-game regular season schedule plus exhibition and potentially more in the playoffs (if the Bruins get in). That’s a good weight gain that gives him a good starting point going into camp. With his body type, he’ll likely lose more over the course of the season- every little bit will help him in the corners, along the walls and in front of the net.

I profiled Pastrnak a year ago in January, right after his outburst of 4 goals in a two-game stretch that secured his place with the big club for the duration of the 2014-15 hockey campaign. For a guy who was still trying to figure out the English thing, I thought he was extremely well spoken, and he reminded me of a young David Krejci, who despite a thick Czech accent and near-whisper when he spoke, said some of the more profound (by hockey dressing room standards) things of anyone on the roster circa 2008-10.

He talked to me about his love for the game and how sometimes, like a typical kid, he just didn’t feel like playing or practicing. Instead of forcing him go, his parents let him make his own decision. That approach seems to have worked out for him, and though still a teenager, he could moonlight as a hockey advice guru with quotes like this one:

“My mom told me that sometimes I didn’t want to go to practice so she (would) just leave me (at home). 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?”

Growing up in the one-rink coal-mining town of Havirov, Pastrnak rode the city bus to practice and games, sometimes wearing his gear and carrying his skates and stick. As long as he could get to the rink on time, it didn’t matter to him how he got there.

Now, at 19, he’s on the verge of something special in Boston. Those cynics who want to waste their time cracking wise about the Bruins now being primed to trade him can chortle and giggle at their so-called cleverness all they want, but they miss the point entirely about what the management team is trying to do. Just as the club once cultivated and groomed a young teen named Patrice Bergeron to be a key contributor and leader, they are doing the same for Pastrnak. Unlike former Bruins Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin, Pastrnak has given the team myriad reasons to hold onto him and invest the millions going forward that it will take as he matures into a league star. The other two are stars as well, but for whatever reason, they either could not or would not embrace the ethos that right or wrong, the Bruins expected them to.

Pastrnak doesn’t have that problem.

He is a player everyone can get behind.

And that’s the memo.

***

You can read the complete profile of David Pastrnak in the February 2015 edition of New England Hockey Journal here:

http://digital.hockeyjournal.com/nxtbooks/seamans/nehj_201502/index.php?startid=10

David Pastrnak, Emil Johansson and Zane McIntyre take a break during 2014 Bruins development camp (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

David Pastrnak, Emil Johansson and Zane McIntyre take a break during 2014 Bruins development camp (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview : Wingers

This is the last installment of the position-by-position look at the Boston Bruins as we enter the new NHL season- training camps are less than a month away. Thanks for reading and passing the links to the other pieces on the goalies, defensemen and centers. There is more to come on the blog as the season goes on, but here’s a breakdown of the team’s situation on the left and right wings.

Brad Marchand raised his arms 24 times last season, a team best (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Brad Marchand raised his arms 24 times last season, a team best (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

In retrospect: Scoring was down across the board, as Milan Lucic and Reilly Smith combined for just 31 goals between them after posting 44 the season before. Both players have new zip codes for the new year, as the Bruins and GM Don Sweeney have attempted to generate some flexibility with the salary cap in sending them to Los Angeles and Florida respectively.

Brad Marchand and Loui Eriksson are the only Boston wingers who surpassed the 20-goal mark last season, as Marchand led the club with 24. Eriksson, who has been much-maligned after being the central return piece in the Tyler Seguin trade on July 4, 2013, bounced back with a solid 22-goal year after dealing with two concussions and just 10 goals in his first full Boston campaign.

Rookie David Pastrnak was a bright spot, electrifying the fan base in his second NHL call-up in January when he posted back-to-back 2-goal games and earned a job with the big club the rest of the way, finishing with 10 goals and 27 points, while leading the team in scoring over the final quarter season stretch. Fellow Providence kiddo Seth Griffith showed some flashes of offense when called up earlier in the year, but a lack of speed and experience saw him returned to the farm for more seasoning.

Former top-10 selection Brett Connolly was brought in at the deadline and suffered a freak finger injury in his very first Bruins practice, causing him to miss all but the final five games. One can only wonder if his presence might have helped the team eke out a win somewhere along the line before he got back into the lineup at admittedly less than 100 percent.

The Simon Gagne veteran redemption experiment did not work, and Daniel Paille 6 goals in 71 games was his worst output since coming to the B’s early in the 2009-10 season. Gagne retired and Paille is still looking for a new team after not being re-signed.

The view from here: Marchand is the team’s most consistent finisher, having tallied at least 20 goals in each of his five full NHL seasons with the exception of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 year, but even then he scored 18 in just 45 games. The small but fleet-of-foot agitator can be his own worst enemy, and he will go long stretches without scoring, only to get hot and carry the team for extended periods. Streaky play aside, Marchand has the bona fides as an important contributor who will continue to get the ice time and could hit 30 goals this year.

Pastrnak is the player the Bruins have been waiting for. The 25th overall pick in 2014 dazzled in development camp immediately after the draft in Philly, the first indication that Boston had a steal. You can never really account for why players like him drop, but the B’s were major beneficiaries, as they had him projected in the mid-teens but after being unable to move up to get him (sensing a trend here? Trading up is much more easier said than done- takes two to tango) they stood pat and got him at their regular spot anyway. He’s not only highly skilled, but extremely hard working and energetic. Cynical Boston fans will grumble about waiting for the inevitable trade that is coming to unload the young star as was the case with Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, but Pastrnak is not going anywhere. In him, Boston has their next Patrice Bergeron in terms of a player who not only has the talent to be a front line guy, but who embodies the team-first, competitive values the organization treasures.

Boston signed free agent Matt Beleskey away from Anaheim in the off-season, getting him at five years and an AAV of $3.8M- not a cheap contract, but less than what prognosticators thought he might receive on the open market heading into July. At 27, he’s in his prime and coming off of a career-best 22 goals for the Ducks in 65 games, but does not have an established body of work as a scorer at the NHL level and has dealt with injuries consistently in his pro career. He’s done and said all the right things since signing with Boston and the Bruins are banking on him getting another 20+ markers while bringing an energy and physicality despite not being an overly big, classic power forward.

Another new addition who does fit the mold of the modern big wing with scoring potential is Dorchester’s Jimmy Hayes, who comes home to play for the team he dreamed of skating for as a kid. Although not your snarly, intimidating presence, the former Boston College star tallied 19 goals the old fashioned way- in front of the net where he parks his 6-5 body and uses his quick hands and offensive instincts to finish off scoring chances. The 25-year-old signed a three-year extension with the B’s after being acquired for Reilly Smith with an AAV of $2.3 million, a bargain if he maintains his production or better yet, ups his numbers into the 20’s. He has talent enough to do it, though he doesn’t have the skill and upside of his younger brother and Rangers forward Kevin.

Eriksson once scored 30 goals in a season, but that’s not who he is. The Bruins got a glimpse more in line with the real forward this past season, and if he brings more of the same, the team will take it. His lack of open-ice speed is the biggest drawback to the veteran Swede, who is a quiet professional and uses his smarts to slip through seams and generate stealthy scoring chances that won’t bring you out of your seat, but count just as much as a highlight reel goal if it goes in. His 18:24 average time on ice led all Boston forwards and speaks to his ability to compete on both special teams and at even strength. Because he’s always going to be compared to Seguin, Eriksson is an easy target for frustrated fans, but he did his job last season and will be counted on again. Given his impending status as a UFA, however, if the team looks out of it as the trade deadline looms, he’s a prime candidate to be moved.

Connolly is an intriguing x-factor as a right wing who just couldn’t find his niche in Tampa Bay after GM Steve Yzerman made him his first ever draft pick, sixth overall, in 2010. At the time, Connolly had been dealing with a major hip injury and was seen as an injury risk that early in the draft despite being a gifted scorer coming out of Prince George of the WHL. Ironically enough, Connolly’s hip has held up since then, but the expected offense has not materialized to the degree indicative of his high pre-draft standing and subsequent projections. He scored 12 goals in 50 games for Tampa Bay in a bottom-six line role, so the potential is there, and the B’s feel that giving up a pair of 2nd round picks- in 2015 and 2016- is worth the risk.

Veterans Chris Kelly and Max Talbot are back to vie for playing time on the lower lines and Claude Julien will value their experience and leadership. Both are in the final years of their contracts and may not be back in Boston for the 2016-17 season, so the team will see what they can get from them this year and take it from there.

If he is unable to win a job at center, the Bruins would be well-served to see if they can get Alexander Khokhlachev out on the wing and try him in a top-9 role. Spots are getting more and more crowded, but the team does not have many more forwards with the pure talent and scoring potential Koko does. A lot of fans fell in love with him without realizing how much work the rest of his game needed, so the appetite to have him in the lineup has been pretty constant since 2011. Now, though, is really time to see what they have in him. The B’s struggled to score last year and that’s what this kid does best. Unlike Spooner, he doesn’t have the speed to be an ideal center, so why not see if he can make the adjustment to wing? It’s worth a shot.

Youngsters Brian Ferlin and Seth Griffith will also hope to get more playing time in Boston during the new campaign. Griffith shined at times, including scoring several memorable goals, and has always been a dangerous offensive player going back to his OHL days with London, even if he does not have ideal size or game-breaking wheels. Ferlin is a big-bodied forward who did not look out of place in a seven-game NHL audition (1 assist), but may have to start the year in Providence if there are no injuries to open up spots up front to begin the year.

In what really amounts to Sweeney’s most curious and criticized move, he dealt a 2017 third-round pick for Zac Rinaldo, one of the most polarizing players for the way he plays on the edge and has received suspensions for illegal hits and putting opponents at risk for injury. Rinaldo is undersized, but plays a kamikaze style that opens him up to injury and also leaves the penalty box door ajar as well given his 102 penalty minutes a year ago. On the positive side, he’ll hit anything and plays with an energy most players can’t hope to match, but a perceived lack of respect for his fellow NHLers, not to mention just 1 goal in 58 games has a lot of Boston fans not seeing the sense in trading a top-90 pick for a player like Rinaldo. We’ll have to see whether he can reign in his emotions and be more than he’s been in his NHL career to date with the Flyers or if this will go down as a step backwards for Sweeney in his early tenure.

David Pastrnak is the player the Boston Bruins have been waiting for. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

David Pastrnak is the player the Boston Bruins have been waiting for. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

On the farm: The B’s signed 2013 late-rounder Anton Blidh, and he’ll turn some heads in Providence with his gritty, in-your-face style. Although I try to avoid comparisons, he plays a style reminiscent of old Boston farm hand (and part-time Bruin until his trade to St. Louis) Vladimir Sobotka. What Blidh lacks in skill, he makes up for in “want to” so watch for him to become a fan favorite with the skill set to come up and provide help in a pinch.

Big winger Colton Hargrove will provide some toughness with Tyler Randell after turning pro out of Western Michigan. The Texan showed offensive improvement every year with the Broncos, and he was a nasty fighter in the USHL with Fargo before the NCAA. He’ll likely embrace a policeman’s role similar to Randell, but don’t expect much in the way of production as he adjusts to the pace and demands of the pro game and schedule.

Anthony Camara has been a disappointment in two pro seasons after being a third-round pick in 2011. As much a victim of internet hype without context, he’s a gritty player who likes to hit, but who does not have the requisite hockey sense to be a front line player and needs more talented linemates to produce. This is probably his last chance to get it going in the Boston system.

Brandon DeFazio and Frank Vatrano provide the ability to score goals on the wings for Providence as neither figure to be favorites to earn spots in Boston out of camp. Vatrano, who hails from East Longmeadow, Mass., has a wicked shot and made a lot of strides in improving his conditioning. He’s someone to keep an eye out as a player who played just one full season at UMass before deciding to make a run with the hometown team.

Free agent Colby Cave could see time at center in Providence, but a move to the wing might suit the gritty, smart and underrated scorer nicely. He can push the pace with his skating and he brings a tenacious style that coaches love. Watch for him to earn Bruce Cassidy’s trust early and often, even if he doesn’t project as a high-end player in the NHL.

The future: Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn were the team’s top two draft selections, but left wing Danton Heinen is the player to watch in the nearer term. The 2014 fourth-rounder out of the Surrey Eagles of the BCHL made an immediate impact at Denver University, finishing with the third-best freshman point totals in the nation. He’s a smart, creative playmaking wing, who showed a consistent ability to make plays around the net even without elite skating ability. He’s shifty and quick, but his mature game and a knack for setting up plays and making it look easy could see him turn pro as soon as this spring if he takes another step forward in his development with the Pioneers.

DeBrusk scored 42 goals with Swift Current and will likely need time to physically mature back in the Dub, but he brings a sniper’s mindset and an eagerness to be a Bruin that makes it none too surprising that the club jumped on him early in the draft at 14th. Like DeBrusk, Senyshyn has a natural ability to find the back of the net- he’s under pressure to justify his high draft standing but has the demeanor to see it through. Time will tell if the Bruins have it right with this duo, but there is no rush to figure it out this season.

Jesse Gabrielle, the club’s fourth-round selection in 2015, grew up in Western Canada cheering for the Bruins and Marchand. Now with Prince George of the WHL, he’s got some Marchand in him. He’ll have to prove that he can maintain his production and consistency while remaining dedicated to working towards an eventual job in Boston.

Rising Notre Dame sophomore Anders Bjork looked good in this month’s Team USA WJC national evaluation camp in Lake Placid. Watch for the 2014 fifth-round pick to make that squad as a versatile, effective two-way forward who brings speed and penalty killing chops to any team he’s on.

Slovak winger Peter Cehlarik will give one more year in the Swedish Hockey League a try before he’s expected to come over and compete for an NHL roster spot. The tall, lanky third rounder two years ago has a good release and offensive ability, but is not all that heavy a player nor does he play with much attention to detail for a 200-foot game. He’s skilled, but leaves you wanting more at times when it comes to his energy and hustle.

The verdict: It’s a middle tier collection of wingers, with not a single player coming off a year of 25 or more goals.

There is some promise with this group, and the Bruins will need it as major steps back by key contributors means that there isn’t much depth to pick it up behind them.

The Beleskey and Hayes additions were solid roster moves, but losing Lucic is going to hurt more than Bruins fans realize until they start watching the games. It’s kind of like that old Cinderella song- “Don’t Know What Ya Got Til It’s Gone”- and fans will have to decide on their own if the contract/UFA debate was worth losing him. Given the return, it probably was, but it’s going to take some getting used to when he’s skating around in a Kings sweater this season, likely playing some of his best hockey in years. It’s only human nature, after all.

Pastrnak is the key- the Bruins need to put him in situations where he can thrive while preserving his health. Don’t expect All-Star caliber numbers, but 20+ goals and north of 50 points as a sophomore would be a win and show that he is well on his way.

Still, there are more lingering questions about this group than answers- the only way to settle the debate is by playing the games.

It’s almost time.