If all goes well for David Pastrnak, his Czech Republic team will go for World Junior Championship gold on Jan. 5 at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. Two days later, Pastrnak will be with his NHL employer in Pittsburgh, where the Bruins will play the Penguins.
Pastrnak, the Bruins’ 2014 first-round pick, will kick off the world juniors on Friday when the Czech Republic plays Sweden in Toronto. It will be Pastrnak’s first time playing in the elite teenage tournament. It will most likely be his last.
It may be unfair and perhaps bordering on desperate to ask an 18-year-old to serve as the first wave in what the Bruins hope will be a series of reinforcements. But these are desperate times. It is the Bruins’ plan, therefore, to give Pastrnak a second look with the varsity upon the tournament’s conclusion — this time, as Jarome Iginla’s full-fledged replacement.
Pastrnak appeared in five games in his first NHL callup. He started his career on the fourth line with Jordan Caron and Alexander Khokhlachev. He moved up to play with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. In his fifth and final game against San Jose, Pastrnak skated with Matt Fraser and Chris Kelly.
There was no Game 6. Pastrnak was back in Providence, where the Bruins instructed him to execute offensive plays between the dots in the hard-hat area. Teenagers are not usually welcome in this space.
Upon his demotion, Pastrnak improved. In six AHL games following his assignment, Pastrnak had five goals and four assists. His speed, skill, and energy are very much needed in Boston, specifically on David Krejci’s line.
When Pastrnak was up, Krejci was injured. Lucic was playing with either Kelly or Carl Soderberg. With Krejci finding his stride, it will be the Bruins’ chance to learn whether Pastrnak can be the answer that has eluded them all year.
Iginla’s departure is not the reason the Bruins are fighting for their playoff lives. They’ve fallen short across the organization.
The weekend before the start of the season, general manager Peter Chiarelli sucked the air out of the dressing room by trading Johnny Boychuk. It was a necessary move to clear cap space for roster flexibility. By the time the Bruins caught their breath and regained their defensive composure, injuries hit and their offense went missing.
Meanwhile, Chiarelli has replaced neither Iginla nor Boychuk, their rough-and-tumble first-line right wing and No. 3 defenseman. The Bruins have trouble scoring because they don’t have enough finishers, but also because their defensemen take too long to get the puck onto their forwards’ sticks.
Among the players Iginla and Boychuk left behind, only two have met or exceeded expectations: Dougie Hamilton and Niklas Svedberg. Too many players have regressed from last year, starting with Tuukka Rask and Patrice Bergeron. This is also on Claude Julien. It’s the coach’s responsibility to maximize his players’ potential. They have not come close to that standard.
Plugging Pastrnak into Iginla’s old spot may be the first step toward a fix.
Julien has tried Craig Cunningham, Seth Griffith, and Loui Eriksson on Krejci’s flank. None of the players is the solution. The Bruins need a right-shot, puck-hungry right wing to complement Lucic and Krejci and transform the line into a unit with offensive presence.
In the AHL, Pastrnak can bring those elements. The Bruins need to learn whether those skills will translate to the opening left by Iginla. A four-game window, the maximum Pastrnak can play without burning the first year of his entry-level contract, would give management the evaluation period required to determine whether he’s a full-time answer.
If not, the Bruins will circle back on Chris Stewart, whom they chased aggressively before the Dec. 18 roster freeze. The Buffalo forward has enough warts — periods of disengagement and hesitation to bring the rough stuff — to make him a healthy scratch on Dec. 9 against Los Angeles. But the Bruins believe the right-shot widebody (6 feet 2 inches, 231 pounds) would raise his game with Krejci feeding him the puck.
The trouble is that Buffalo GM Tim Murray can wait Chiarelli out. This is the approach Chiarelli took in the Boychuk trade. Chiarelli waited until Islanders GM Garth Snow paid a heavy price: two second-round picks (2015 and 2016), a return he couldn’t have netted had he traded Boychuk in the summer.
If Pastrnak can’t deliver and the Bruins continue losing, Murray will continue to ask for more until Chiarelli runs out of time.
Time isn’t on the Bruins’ side. Nor do they have many options. They are tight against the cap. Previous years of poor drafts (zero NHL assets from 2007-09) have taken pieces out of play. They need to keep young players such as Ryan Spooner, Khokhlachev, Justin Florek, and Matt Lindblad as candidates to replace Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell, the UFAs-to-be whose ghostly performances have done little to merit extensions.
Their top assets are Soderberg, Reilly Smith, and Torey Krug. Trading any of them to fix the offense, however, would lead to other issues that would require attention.
Their best solutions are internal. That starts with Pastrnak. But it continues throughout the roster. No team can succeed when the majority of the lineup doesn’t play to its potential.
The Bruins’ record (18-14-3, ninth in the Eastern Conference) says this is a bad group. They don’t agree. The Bruins still believe this is a good team with good players. It’s time for them to show it.