WILMINGTON — The Bruins are not shopping for a right wing because of dissatisfaction with David Pastrnak.
The 18-year-old, just 15 games into his NHL career, has four goals and two assists. He’s played on three of four lines. The rookie scored two goals in back-to-back games against Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. Coaches and teammates like what they’ve seen from Pastrnak defensively, where he’s been committed to chipping pucks out and backchecking with purpose.
But for the last three games, the Bruins have acknowledged reality. It’s hard to ask a wispy teenager to grind against varsity NHLers such as John Tavares, Anze Kopitar, and Derick Brassard. If the Bruins qualify for the playoffs, the opponents will only be among the game’s best. The Bruins would be more comfortable with a bigger and stronger veteran doing the heavy lifting.
Starting Jan. 29 against the Islanders, coach Claude Julien shielded Pastrnak by taking him away from Milan Lucic and David Krejci and putting him on the third line with Chris Kelly and Carl Soderberg. In doing so, they broke up Kelly, Soderberg, and Loui Eriksson, one of the team’s most consistent offensive lines.
The shift has produced wins over the Islanders and Kings and a one-goal road loss to the Rangers. Julien likes how Soderberg and Pastrnak are becoming more comfortable together offensively. It is a partnership Julien believes will pay off long term. Injuries will happen. Slumps will appear. Players will have to move around the lineup.
“It’s going to benefit us down the road as far as having players playing with different players,” Julien said after Thursday’s practice at Ristuccia Arena. “There’s always injuries along the way. The more chemistry you can get with different players, the better it is for us. I really see David and Carl working hard at understanding each other and what’s expected. I’m sure down the road you’re going to see them being better.”
Three games, however, have not been enough for the third liners to gain offensive traction. They’ve been on the ice for one goal, a Kelly tip of a Soderberg shot against Los Angeles.
During this segment, Pastrnak has zero points while playing against bottom-six forwards and third defensive pairings. Kelly (goal) and Soderberg (assist) have one point apiece.
The move has affected Soderberg the most. The center has landed only two shots on goal since the shift. He had been averaging just over two shots on net per game.
When playing with Eriksson this season, Soderberg has been on the ice for 53.2 percent more shot attempts taken by the Bruins than allowed at even strength, according to Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com. Without Eriksson, that number has dropped to 47 percent. It indicates that Soderberg controls the puck more with Eriksson than he does without.
Pastrnak and Eriksson are different players. Pastrnak is a fast and quick right-shot wing. He doesn’t need much time or space to make offensive plays. He likes to shoot the puck from all areas.
The left-shot Eriksson is more of a puck-lugging wing. He doesn’t have Pastrnak’s speed, but he’s stronger on the puck. He looks for his linemates. He prefers to shoot in the high-percentage area down low. When his teammates have the puck, he goes to the front of the net for screens and tips.
It’s not easy for a center to adjust to a different wing. It’s even harder when their styles are as divergent as chocolate and vanilla.
“You’re trying to get to him a bit quicker to support him and be ready for those quick-hit plays,” Kelly said of Pastrnak. “Like anything, playing with different guys, it takes a little bit of time to adjust to certain styles. I’m sure if you ask him, it’s a lot different playing with Carl and myself than Looch and Krech. You’ve just got to be patient at certain times and realize certain guys’ tendencies.”
For the last three games, Eriksson has played with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. It’s been a good line. Eriksson set up Bergeron with a clever saucer pass against the Rangers.
But Eriksson’s best fit is with Kelly and Soderberg. They’ve been strong for most of the season. They ripped up Detroit’s third pairing in the first round of the playoffs last season.
Reilly Smith, who has been playing with Lucic and Krejci, is a good fit with Marchand and Bergeron. They’re comfortable squaring off against power lines. They turn defensive plays into offensive chances.
This leaves the Bruins back to where they started the season: a question mark next to Lucic and Krejci. Pastrnak has the skill and speed to play in Jarome Iginla’s former spot. He has scored all four of his goals with Krejci as his center. In the third period against the Rangers, in search of the tying goal, Julien moved Pastrnak up to Krejci’s flank.
But the worry is twofold. It’s punishing for a teenager, both physically and mentally, to play airtight defense against top-six forwards — and sometimes fail. It’s risky for a team to put a rookie in such a position.
The Bruins have pushed hard for Chris Stewart. They tried for the right wing last spring after losing a playoff series to the Canadiens. They made another pitch in December before the holiday freeze. They could take another swing now.
One package Buffalo turned down (a second-round pick and a prospect) may not be on the table anymore. The Bruins are in a stronger position to deal now than two months ago, when they were fighting for a top-eight spot.
Pastrnak may become the answer. But it wouldn’t hurt to have options.