FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Because the Bruins played in Toronto the night before, David Pastrnak was given the day off from NHL All-Star Media Day. The main representation of the Bruins star at the beach Thursday was a giant puck with his image, nestled on the boardwalk beneath a row of palm trees.
But given how chatter easily turned to the best-in-class Bruins, when a few dozen NHL stars took questions along the waterfront, it’s fair to say Pastrnak was here in spirit.
Pastrnak was an easy conversation topic. His 38 goals rank behind only Connor McDavid (41) for the league lead. He sits tied with Nikita Kucherov of the Lightning for third in scoring (72 points) behind McDavid (92) and Oilers teammate Leon Draisaitl (76). His rocket of a shot, whether launched one-time style from the circle or after dangling into the slot, is feared. His playmaking (34 assists) has earned him a rep as a multi-tool threat.
And more than ever, he’s using his frame (6 feet 1 inch, 195 pounds) to create space for himself and his teammates and, occasionally, to rattle bones on the forecheck.
“I think he learned that just going through playoffs,” said first-year Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy, who tutored Pastrnak the past six years in Boston. “He would get hit and say, ‘I might as well hit back. I’m a big enough guy.’ I think he’s evolved from the tough grinds of the playoff series. Hit or be hit.”
The Bruins’ leading scorer is having a monster contract year, and the rest of the league would love to see No. 88 break the bank. Not just because he’s a good guy, either.
Whether he re-signs in Boston or tests free agency, Pastrnak — scheduled to splash down in South Florida on Friday with Bruins netminder Linus Ullmark and coach Jim Montgomery — could become one of the highest-paid players in the game. He is sure to surpass defenseman Charlie McAvoy ($9.5 million annually) among Bruins and could challenge the Rangers’ Artemi Panarin ($11.643 million) for the top spot among wings.
If that makes it so the Bruins have fewer dollars to pay others, opponents will be pleased. Until then, they have a heck of a player to deal with.
“It’s hard to just run at a guy like that and take his time and space away,” Rangers defenseman Adam Fox said. “He can make you look silly. He doesn’t have to do it himself. He can give and go and find his spot. It’s easy to say look for him and cover him, but he knows where to go.
“I don’t know if I would describe him as overly physical, when whenever you have guys that have that kind of skill that get in on the forecheck, it’s tough, and while he might not be lining guys up at center ice for open-ice hits, but little bumps here and there slow D-men down. When he’s scoring 30-something goals already, and doing those other things, he’s a special player.”
Count Sharks veteran defenseman Erik Karlsson as someone who’s been impressed by Pastrnak’s increased physicality. He is no longer the up-and-comer who gets knocked off the puck too easily.
“Oh, I mean, he’s a highly skilled guy,” Karlsson said. “He’s got a really good hockey IQ, and he’s a big boy. He’s figured out how to use his positioning and his body size. He’s having such a great year. I don’t think anyone who’s watched them is surprised by that.”
Another Norris Trophy candidate, the Sabres’ Rasmus Dahlin, said Pastrnak always finds ways to keep him on his toes.
“You never know what he’s going to do,” Dahlin said. “Is he going to fake a hit and take the puck, or hit you? He’s such a dynamic player. I don’t like playing against him because he’s so unpredictable.”
“He can beat you in a lot of ways,” Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki said. “He can pretty much do it all.”
Generally speaking, players from Europe appreciate their own kind making it big in North America.
“It’s always nice to see the younger players develop and mature and become superstars,” said Blues wing Vladimir Tarasenko. “I think it’s way more harder than people think to come overseas and face the culture change, the mental change.”
Czechia, where Pastrnak is from, and Taresenko’s Russia are not the same, but there are similarities.
“You come here by yourself,” Tarasenko said. “You’re away from your family. Most people are very tight with their families. Different cultures. People here are smiling more, talking more. In Russia, you only smile if you like somebody. So it’s pretty clear if someone likes you or not.”
Pastrnak arrived with a smile after the Bruins drafted him in the first round (25th overall) in 2014. He has shown the same bubbly, expressive personality, which has seen him star in commercials for the NHL and Dunkin’ Donuts, and appear on the top of hockey’s “best dressed” lists.
Draisaitl has watched Pastrnak add to his game since they both signed their second contracts in September 2017. The forwards became “close friends” that summer, Pastrnak once said, while they were waiting to cash in. While the German signed for eight years at an annual $8.5 million salary-cap hit, Pastrnak came in at six years with a $6.667 million annual cap hit.
“For me it’s the consistency in his game,” said Draisaitl. “He’s just so dangerous. He’s always had the skill, right? But now the consistency for him to do it every year, over and over, every game. You don’t want him touching the puck too often.”