There is one way for David Pastrnak to gain weight. It would require the ninth-floor TD Garden puck watchers to share their stash of peanut M&Ms. This is not a preferred scenario for either party.
But Pastrnak’s frame is a real concern as the Bruins continue to gather data on whether to retain the 18-year-old for 10 NHL games this season. Pastrnak is listed at 167 pounds. This is featherweight material in a heavyweight league.
“I don’t see a fear in him going to the net. I don’t see a fear in him going into the corners,” said coach Claude Julien after Saturday’s 3-1 win over the Flyers in which Pastrnak potted his first two career strikes. “Right now, it’s just a matter of if he’s strong enough and if he has the durability to be able to do that on a nightly basis in this league right now at the age of 18. We’re evaluating him as each game goes on. At the end of it, we’ll make a decision.”
The Bruins host Tampa Bay Tuesday. The Rangers visit Thursday. Assuming Pastrnak plays both nights, this is the final two-game window in which the Bruins can make their decision on the wisdom of burning the first year of his entry-level contract.
If he plays both nights and one more time Saturday against Columbus, the first year will be in the books, even if the Bruins send him back to Providence after that point.
The trick is using the remaining two dates, in concert with his previous body of work (seven NHL appearances, 24 AHL games, a good run at the World Junior Championship), to project how Pastrnak will play when the calendar pages flip over.
It won’t be easy.
A two-goal game is a two-goal game. Pastrnak became the ninth Bruin to turn the trick this season. Brad Marchand’s done it three times. Seth Griffith, Patrice Bergeron, Dougie Hamilton, Matt Fraser, Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, and Milan Lucic have done it once. For a team ranked No. 21 in scoring (2.58 goals per game), players with offensive touch are always welcome.
They now know he can do good things in the offensive zone. In the first period Saturday, Pastrnak jumped on the rebound of Torey Krug’s boomer and backhanded the puck past Ray Emery for a power-play goal. In the third, Pastrnak went to the net-front area again. David Krejci set up Pastrnak by drawing defenders his way and sliding a cross-ice dish for the rookie to wing past Emery for the winning goal.
Pastrnak has played mostly with Krejci and Marchand the last two games. He’s pushed defensemen back with his speed and stretched out the offensive zone.
But from September through June, NHL bodies break down. By the time a team bulls through 82 regular-season games and three postseason rounds, players resemble ground beef more than a thick cut.
For all their physical resilience, teenagers are subject to this as well. Youth cannot counter the nightly battering inflicted by large and angry men. All of Pastrnak’s speed, skill, and smarts will not be good enough if he wears out over the next few months.
The Bruins must also project how Pastrnak’s play without the puck will improve. Practice, experience, and repetitions should do the trick. Pastrnak is a smart player. The more he plays with Krejci, the more he’ll figure out where to go and how to get open.
The Bruins believe they score goals by being strong in the other areas of the rink. Good plays such as back pressure, sticks in lanes, defensive layers, efficiency on the walls, and tight gaps force opponents to turn the puck over. The Bruins turn those mistakes into rushes the other way. Speed and numbers into the offensive zone produce the things every team wants: shots, scoring chances, traffic, and goals.
This all goes to bits, however, with just one player out of formation. If a youngster such as Pastrnak chases the wrong player, doesn’t dig the puck out of the wall, or forgets to collapse down low, his teammates have to cover up.
This triggers a chain reaction that can produce flat-out panic in the defensive zone. This has been one of the Bruins’ biggest issues. They’re no good when they’re chasing the puck, duplicating assignments, and leaving the net-front area open for business.
If Pastrnak is to stick, the Bruins have to believe he won’t make defensive mistakes. They have some options to help out the rookie.
The last two games, Craig Cunningham has played on the fourth line. Cunningham is a stronger and more experienced right wing. With his team protecting a three-goal lead in Saturday’s third period, Julien could have replaced Pastrnak permanently with Cunningham. He didn’t.
“He never showed anything that made me nervous,” Julien said of Pastrnak. “He was back there, he was getting pucks out. He wasn’t afraid to skate out either. When you see a young player do that, you give him that confidence. Until he shows me otherwise, that’s when you make decisions. Real late in the period, I went with some experience there. But I was hoping we’d get him on soon enough to get him an opportunity at the trick.”
Pastrnak’s third goal didn’t come. But if he continues to play responsible defense, NHL hat tricks are in his future. Maybe even this year.