Just like any other 20-year-old, Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak often finds himself sifting through social media and finding entertainment in whatever app he’s next to open. For hockey players, the official NHL app is a staple on their phones, and Pastrnak is no different.
One swipe, a tap here and a scroll there and Pastrnak discovers his name among some great company. There’s Penguins forward Sidney Crosby and St. Louis winger Vladimir Tarasenko as well as Winnipeg’s dynamic duo of Patrick Laine and Mark Scheifele. Even directly below Pastrnak’s name is Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin.
Pastrnak is looking at the NHL’s leaders in goals where even he has to pinch himself.
“I didn’t expect that,” Pastrnak said with a smirk as he leaned against the wall outside the visiting team’s locker room following Boston’s shootout loss in Philadelphia on Tuesday.
What he saw, along with surprised hockey fans, is that the Czech Republic product is tied for third with 13 goals, sitting three behind the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner and two-time league MVP Crosby. Perhaps the most impressive thing about his placement among the league’s best is that his 13 goals in 20 games puts him at a 0.65 goal-per-game pace, trailing only Crosby among those who qualify.
One of his more shining moments in a season that’s been filled with many of them was his nifty right-to-left then back to his forehand finish in which he tucked the puck with ease around the outstretched leg of Carolina’s goaltender, Cam Ward, for the deciding shootout goal in Boston’s 2-1 win on Thursday.
The sudden breakout of Pastrnak has, as Bruins general manager, Don Sweeney, emphasized, been a product of “natural progression” mixed with the right amount of opportunities.
“When those things align, you get a player that potentially can have a breakout season, and we hope it continues,” Sweeney said.
The 25th pick in the 2014 draft spent his first two seasons in Boston’s bottom six with “snippets” of time in the top six. He would’ve liked a larger role then, but was fully understanding of what the bigger picture entailed.
“At times, a player doesn’t necessarily accept that either, but I think they appreciate that later on that that was part of his development,” Sweeney said. “He was ready for a higher role this year from Day One of training camp. It was up to him to maintain that, but he was ready for that opportunity and we had seen that.”
As they do with all of their players during exit interviews, the Bruins hierarchy told their young forward exactly what they wanted him to focus on during the offseason: his strength. Sweeney was aware that “you can’t accelerate” the natural growth of someone so he was praying that his then-19-year-old frame would fill out a bit more over the summer months.
Pastrnak has gained about 10 pounds, most of that muscle, since his draft year. Apparently that was good enough for management and the team’s coaching staff to instill more confidence in him. It also didn’t hurt that Pastrnak participated in the World Cup of Hockey in September for Team Czech Republic where he went scoreless in three contests but gained valuable playing time.
That led to his biggest opportunity to date: getting the call as the opening day starter at right wing alongside top line center Patrice Bergeron and his longtime right-hand man Brad Marchand.
Pastrnak took that opening and ran with it. The up-tempo pace at which Bergeron and Marchand operate has benefitted Pastrnak. He believes playing with those two have given him scoring chances he otherwise wouldn’t have.
“He’s been good all year,” said Bruins head coach, Claude Julien. “He’s skating, he’s got confidence, he’s a highly-skilled player. He’s doing a lot of good things.”
At the rate he’s finding the back of the net, even Sweeney admits he’s been pleasantly surprised at his performance through the first two months when discussing his actual development compared to their expectations.
“Obviously if he continues to score at this clip, you’d have to say he’s ahead of that,” Sweeney said. “When you’re playing with better players, and now all of a sudden he’s creating anxiety in other teams’ defensemen that have to understand that they now have to watch out for him as opposed to just the other two guys on the line, well, then now you’ve got something.”
Over his first two seasons, Sweeney felt Pastrnak was somewhat of a “one-and-done” player. By that, he meant on one series Pastrnak would make a highlight-reel play, but then he would make a turnover the next.
Whether that was just the usual ups-and-downs of being a teenager in the highest level of hockey or a lack of focus on Pastrnak’s end, it’s far behind him now. He’s developed himself into a far more reliable forward.
“When a player has a better feel where he is and what’s required of him out on the ice in all situations, coaches develop more of a rapport and the player is more confident as a result,” Sweeney said. “I think those go hand in hand.”
Perhaps the biggest driving force behind his success is that increase in confidence. It has become so apparent that when asked what the difference is in Pastrnak from last year to now, “confidence” was the first word out of most of his teammates’ mouths.
“I think he’s just maturing into his own player,” said Bergeron. “He’s playing with some more confidence, and when that happens, obviously you start to make plays and create a lot for yourself...he’s definitely giving us the offense we need right now.”
Fellow 20-year-old and starting defenseman Brandon Carlo admits Pastrnak’s confidence is easily felt around the room. Carlo is hoping some of that rubs off on him.
“It’s pretty special for a guy that’s so young,” said Carlo.
That newfound mentality of Pastrnak’s has opened many doors for him. Boston has utilized him on the power play, giving him yet another opportunity that he has taken ahold of.
Pastrnak leads Boston with four goals on the man advantage and is tied with forward David Krejci with five points. Over his first two years, Pastrnak compiled just two power play goals.
“The role changes when you get older,” Pastrnak said. “It’s my third year now, so I’m getting more power play time which helps the confidence. I’m definitely feeling way better than I did.”
Much of his progression at 5-on-4 has to do with the urging by management in regards to Pastrnak’s untapped potential with his one-timer. Before this season, Pastrnak never really had much of a chance to showcase it. During his exit interview, it was suggested to Pastrnak that if he wants to see more power play time, he must develop that shot of his.
What went in one ear, never went out the other. Sweeney sees a night-and-day difference in his shot.
“You can’t take away anything David’s done,” Sweeney said. “He’s finishing at a higher level and a higher shooting percentage than he’s had the last couple of years. That’s part of opportunity. It’s good for him and good for us.”
An avid golfer, Sweeney likes to compare what Pastrnak is doing on the ice to something that occurs on the links.
“When you see your putts go in, you think the hole is bigger than it is,” said Sweeney.
If that’s the case, the Pastrnak must feel like he’s shooting at soccer nets. His shooting percentage sits at 19.1, which is five points higher than last season, and among the best in the NHL.
“His goal scoring is pretty phenomenal,” Carlo said. “He finds pucks in and around the net all the time. He has a phenomenal shot. His play making ability is as good as anybody in this league. He does really good with the first line guys and complements that line really well. He’s been great so far this year, and I don’t expect him to slide at all.”
Perhaps the next time Pastrnak checks the NHL app for the scoring leaders, he won’t be so surprised anymore. It looks as though this fast start of his isn’t going away anytime soon.