Just how good can David Pastrnak be? It’s a scary thought

0
32


To see David Pastrnak in his element is to see a young man having a lot of fun. The tattooed Boston Bruins right winger had an infectious confidence as he bounced around NHL all-star weekend in St. Louis, captaining Team Atlantic to MVP honors and joking with reporters after the Shooting Stars skills event that he was a bad pro because he didn’t build himself a 30-foot platform to practise on at home beforehand.

This is just the beginning for Pastrnak. This is the year he won his first Rocket Richard Trophy. How did the 24-year-old get to this point? Certainly his situation in Boston has helped, once he joined future Hall of Fame center Patrice Bergeron and the devilishly talented Brad Marchand on the Bruins’ top line – but you have to be good to play with good players. The first big leap came in 2016-17, when the third-year pro broke out for 70 points after just 26 as a sophomore.

“I got settled in and more confident,” Pastrnak said. “I got a great set of linemates who helped me out and taught me. There’s probably a million things that (depend) on each other, and I started believing in myself, that I could be a good player in this league, better than good.”

The second leap is happened this season, as Pastrnak finished the abbreviated campaign with 48 goals and 95 points in 70 games. The Bruins have been a top-end team for years now, but they shot out of the gate this season while Tampa Bay stumbled, creating a surprising result in the Atlantic standings for much of the first half. The Lightning came on, but the Bruins fended them off to claim the Presidents’ Trophy. While more secondary scoring would behoove the B’s should the season restart, riding the wave of Apex Pastrnak isn’t a bad idea, either. And Pastrnak’s coach knows this production didn’t simply spring out of the ether. “There’s a couple of things,” said Bruce Cassidy. “First is the development of his shot. His one-timer has improved so much over the past few years. Then, it’s his strength on the puck, that’s just natural physical maturing. You hope kids that come in at 19 or 20 are stronger at 23, and he has invested in himself in that area. He’s a hardworking guy off the ice in the gym. And then there’s confidence. He’s playing with good players, and he complements those players. You put those three things together, and it’s really worked out for David.”

Opportunity helps, too. Talk to Pastrnak about his career and you can feel the excitement in his voice when he speaks of his setup in the NHL. For a kid who grew up in the Czech Republic (before playing his pre-NHL days in Sweden with Sodertalje), it’s basically a buffet to feast on. All the ice time in the world has allowed him to develop a deadly release on his shot. “You go out there and try to get better before practice or after,” he said. “In the NHL, one great point is that you have the ice for yourself pretty much every day. After practice you can stay as long as you want. Before practice you can go as early as you want. It’s amazing. Growing up as a kid in Czech, you would have ice from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. You had to be there exactly at 11 and get off right at 12. So this is fun. Shooting pucks and scoring goals is fun.”

That exuberant attitude is hard to miss, too.

“He’s a passionate guy, and he loves hockey more than anything,” Cassidy said. “He loves being at the rink every day, so he can’t help but get better when he’s in that environment.”

These developments are not so fun for opponents, however. Even the best in the league have a difficult time picking up Pastrnak in the offensive zone because he’s unpredictable and elusive before he unloads a clapper.

“Probably one of the best one-timers in the league, so that’s a big challenge,” said Tampa Bay goalie and reigning Vezina Trophy-winner Andrei Vasilevskiy. “His shot is unbelievable, and he tries to shoot from everywhere. He’s so fast that sometimes I don’t have time to get in position. It’s a big advantage for him and a challenge for me.”

If there was one spot on the ice where defenders could try to track Pastrnak, it would be just above the right faceoff dot, as if Alex Ovechkin decided to take a stride or two in from his office. But Pastrnak will also pop up pretty much anywhere around the net, and with Bergeron’s vision, finding Pastrnak open is rarely a problem. What makes Pastrnak even more vexing is he’s always been a two-way player, and he’s not done learning there, either. Thank his linemates for that.

“If you look at us, we’re all totally different players, and we came together with great chemistry,” Pastrnak said. “We all have a role, and we try to improve our weaknesses. ‘Bergy’ talks to me about defensive plays all the time, so it’s great to have those kind of guys for linemates.”

Admittedly, however, defense is something best practised by Pastrnak during the season. In the summer, he focuses elsewhere.

“I work more on weaknesses,” he said. “My main focus every summer is to get faster and stronger. Hockey-wise I’m going to improve through the season, but in the summer I try to get faster and stronger. It’s hard to practise defense in the summer, right? There’s no hitting in a scrimmage.”

So now we consider the ceiling. A 50-goal season seems inevitable, as well as a solo Rocket win (he tied with Alex Ovehckin this season). But Pastrnak isn’t worried about personal accolades.

I’m trying to help my team win,” he said, “and I don’t care about the outcome of my goals or points. It’s fun to score – that’s what I’m getting paid for, and that’s my biggest strength, being an offensive player – but I’m not focusing on any scoring race.”

Last year, he finished second in team playoff scoring to Marchand with 19 points in 24 games, helping the Bruins come within a win of the Stanley Cup. (Did Blues fans forget this during all-star weekend? No, dear reader, they did not: Pastrnak was constantly booed.) With one more year of growth and experience under his belt, Pastrnak has the profile to be even more prolific in the post-season.

And he sure looks like he’s having a lot of fun in the process.

This is an edited verison of a story that originally appeared in The Hockey News 2020 Trade Deadline Preview Issue. Want more in-depth features, analysis and opinions delivered right to your mailbox? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.