There’s no doubt about David Pastrnak’s elite offensive ability as he shoots and scores on the Boston Bruins’ high-flying top line. Now the 21-year-old right winger is figuring out the details while maintaining his fun-loving ways.
Want to witness David Pastrnak painfully straddle the line between childhood and adulthood? Let’s go back to mid-November when he’s asked about his Halloween costume about six hours before he plays a road game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, with a half-dozen reporters and TV cameras staring him down.
Pastrnak’s idea, for a Boston Bruins team party in which every player had to dress as a movie character: Steve and Doug Butabi, better known as the Night at the Roxbury guys, the dimwitted, head-bopping, nightclub-frequenting brothers immortalized by Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan on Saturday Night Live two decades ago. Standing in for them: Pastrnak and rookie Jake DeBrusk. DeBrusk is Canadian, Pastrnak is Czech, yet it was Pastrnak who knew and loved the movie. He had to teach DeBrusk about it. They donned stunningly accurate and provocative mesh shirts with faux sideburns and arrived at the Bruins party ready to perform.
“We did have a dance,” Pastrnak said. “We had a couple lines ready.”
Oh yeah? Care to quote them, David?
Pastrnak shifts nervously and gives it a shot. “ ‘And I was standing there on the pay phone call…’ ”
He stops, too embarrassed to finish what fans of the movie know as the “Emilio!” bit. “Ah, I don’t want to say it. This is game day today.”
Pastrnak is just 21 and known for being the team’s free spirit. He dresses with panache and tours the world in the off-season. He was the NHL’s youngest player at 18 years, 183 days when he jumped from the 2014 draft, where he went 25th overall, to the Bruins in November of that year. But you can see him at war with the kid version of himself talking about his extracurricular activities on a game day. He’s trying to hold himself accountable as one of the most important players on his team, if not the most important given how many prime years he has left.
Life gets more serious for Pastrnak by the day. We saw it in the pre-season when he refused to report to the NHL until he completed a contentious contract extension with the Bruins, which ended in mid-September with a six-year, $40-million deal. Things have become more businesslike for Pastrnak on the ice, too.
It’s no secret he’s growing into an elite offensive weapon. He has 16 more career goals than any other player from his draft class, which includes Leon Draisaitl, William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers, and only Draisaitl has more points. Pastrnak is on the cusp of the league’s top 10 in goals since the start of 2016-17, too, after exploding for 34 in 75 games last year and carrying that productivity into 2017-18. But as talented and silky-handed as he is, there’s more to him than that – and his team is asking for more out of him. There’s a reason why the trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Pastrnak, one of the game’s very best lines, regularly ranks among the league’s elite in the possession stats. Playing such a dominant two-way game requires a grown-up’s hockey mind, and there’s no better player for Pastrnak to learn from than Bergeron, who’s tied with Bob Gainey for the all-time lead in Selke Trophies with four.
“He’s an unbelievable player all around,” Pastrnak said. “His stick on the ice is really good. It’s so nice to play with him. We talk together every shift, so I know I’m going to get better with this guy.”
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy benched Pastrnak in November and scheduled a 1-on-1 sitdown meeting to discuss commitment to defense, and Cassidy has spoken openly to the media about Pastrnak’s need to improve as a backchecker. Bergeron, however, believes it’s already happening.
“He’s learning,” Bergeron said. “He wants to learn, too, and that’s the main thing. He’s working hard to get back to his position in his zone. I’ve always told him to try and collapse as much as he can in the slot. If you feel like we’re in trouble and running around in our zone, if you get back to the slot, usually that’s where danger happens.”
Younger players not immersing themselves in defense often don’t want to stop moving on the backcheck in the hopes that they’ll still have speed going for the next offensive rush up ice. As Bergeron explains, he’s been drilling into Pastrnak that he sometimes needs to come to a full stop in his own zone to establish better positioning and ensure opposing scoring chances get thwarted before Pastrnak starts dreaming about the counter-attack.
“He’s been really good on back pressure and stuff like that,” Bergeron said. “To be on the puck and retrieve and win some battles, that can make a big difference.”
There’s still work to do based on the underlying possession numbers, albeit the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak line’s standard is absurdly high. While still elite, the trio isn’t quite as prolific at generating shot attempts this season as it was last, and it’s allowing slightly more attempts as well. The stat known as WOWY – With Or Without You – tells us that Pastrnak’s possession numbers completely tank when he’s not on the ice with Bergeron and Marchand. So Pastrnak hasn’t reached the point where he can drive the play on his own line. But that’s OK. He’s only 21 and already an offensive star. The defensive maturity comes later for most players, and he has many years left to learn from Bergeron and Marchand, who are signed through 2021-22 and 2024-25, respectively.
And we don’t want Pastrnak to grow up too fast, at least not off the ice. Team harmony matters almost as much as defense, and he is the Bruins’ designated spreader of joy. Maybe he’s too mature to recite movie quotes on game days now, but odds are his days of playing dress-up will continue. Fun is what makes Pastrnak who he is – and the Bruins are better for it.