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.