Even though the season is young, the visiting coach had an expert scouting report on the Bruins.
“Nothing’s changed with them,” Claude Julien said. “They’re still extremely strong defensively. They don’t give much. They’ve got some guys, especially that one line, that can do a lot of damage.
“They won 3-0 [Thursday, against Philadelphia] and that line didn’t get a point, but they did a lot.”
Julien coaches Montreal now, but his 10 years in Boston and habitual watching of the league makes him a firm believer in the excellence of that line: Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak.
It was not the NHL’s best line when his Boston tenure ended nearly 21 months ago, largely because Pastrnak was not the player he is now.
“He’s become the real deal,” Julien said. “The player everyone expected he would be.”
Pastrnak was breaking out as a 20-year-old, on his way to 34 goals and 70 points, when Julien was fired Feb. 7, 2017. When his old coach returned to Boston with the Habs last Jan. 17, Pastrnak was rising still (35-45—80 that year).
Friday, the 22-year-old’s hot start had visiting Montreal reporters asking him about a Habs legend.
“No, not at all,” said Pastrnak, when asked if he thinks about winning the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal-getter. After 10 games, he was tied with Toronto’s Auston Matthews for the league lead in goals (10) and was tied for second in points (15), behind Matthews, Bergeron, and Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen (16). “It’s early in the season. Trying to do the best for the team. So far it’s working,” he said. “At some point in my hockey career, I want to become one of these players. It won’t come with no work. I’m still pretty young. I’ll have to hit 50 goals at some point . . . it’s just a question of work.”
Czech countryman David Krejci, who considers Pastrnak the most creatively skilled teammate he’s played with (tied with Marc Savard), said Pasta-for-Rocket is not far off.
“His shot is getting stronger and stronger. He can pick the corners and hide it through defensemen’s sticks. He’s got all the tools,” Krejci said. “But it’s a little early for that. Let’s talk after 50, 60 games.”
Julien, too, thinks he can get there.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “He can shoot the puck a ton, and he’s got a winger and a center that find him, just like with Ovi [Washington’s Alex Ovechkin]. But he can skate and create his own goals.”
Pastrnak has the same enthusiastic personality, the same flashy postgame suits, the same enticing mix of skills he did when Julien was coach. But he’s heavier, stronger, and more attentive to the defensive details Julien’s staff tried to coax out of him.
The plays Pastrnak makes now — stickwork, positioning, skating hard on the backcheck — didn’t always come easy when he was a 167-pound rookie in 2014-15. Now nearly 30 pounds heavier, he’s scoring at a goal-a-game pace and pulling his weight defensively.
Julien coached him hard, but never questioned his work ethic.
“He was a great kid when we got him at 18. He’s grown into an awesome player,” Julien said.
“I think he wanted to be better. He cared about getting better. It was easy to work with him because he was receptive. You never want to take the assets away, but you want you add something. Now you can use him late in a game.”
“You teach details, and there’s times where they’ll look and say, why is that important? We’re going through the same thing with [No. 3 overall draft pick Jesperi] Kotkaniemi, the 18-year-old. He’s got unbelievable talent, and we want to use that.. But we need to teach him about not turning pucks over late in games and not forcing plays, without taking anything away. When you figure out that balance, that’s when you become a complete player. That’s what Pastrnak has become.”
It has been an offseason of positive change for Julien, who swapped assistants J.J. Daigneault and Dan Lacroix for QMJHL coach Dominic Ducharme, who won a Memorial Cup in 2013 with now-Colorado star Nathan MacKinnon and current Hab Jonathan Drouin, and ex--NHL defenseman Luke Richardson. Despite missing defensive rock Shea Weber (knee surgery, expected back in December) the Habs have started 5-2-2 by asking defenders to move the puck quickly, getting solid work from goalie Carey Price, and tapping into the potential of youngsters like Kotkaniemi.
Has Julien himself changed since returning to La Belle Province?
“Just gotten older,” he said. “That’s about it.”
For Julien, 58, who coached the Habs from 2002-06, the transition was simple. He grew up speaking French in Ottawa and moves seamlessly between languages. His children have a bit of catching up to do. Julien’s wife, Karen, and Katryna Chanel, 13, Zachary, 6, and Madyson, 4, stayed in Boston last year, finishing school and FaceTiming their father. They moved to Montreal last summer, hoping to grow the same roots they had in Boston. At this point, they are still New Englanders.
That means more coaching.
“We’ve got to get rid of the Boston accent,” Julien said, grinning. “Then we can teach them French.”
It was a lighter-than-usual practice day . Zdeno Chara was given a maintenance day, as was checking winger Chris Wagner. “Both a little off,” Cassidy said, alluding to bumps and bruises, “but nothing serious.” With Chara out, Torey Krug dove headlong into his first full practice since his Sept. 29 left ankle injury. He assumed Chara’s spot on the No. 1 pair with Brandon Carlo, and competed in what few battle drills Boston performed. “He’s close,” said Cassidy . . . Charlie McAvoy and David Backes (who last played Oct. 18 in Edmonton) and Urho Vaakanainen (Oct. 23 in Ottawa) did not skate Friday . . . Tuukka Rask will start Saturday. “We’re certainly not down on Tuukka,” Cassidy said. “He played well in Ottawa. Hopefully that snowballs for him.”
Cassidy said both should be available Saturday.
The coach wasn’t sure if Krug would be ready for Montreal, which would be his first game since a different injury May 4 against Tampa.
If not Saturday, Tuesday at Carolina or next Saturday at Nashville are strong possibilities.
All are listed as having upper-body injuries. Regarding Backes, who has a concussion history, Cassidy didn’t have much of an update. “Hopefully he wakes up feeling better and gets back to joining the group,” he said. On McAvoy: “Not much going on there to report.” . . . Ryan Donato, bumped to left wing on the third line in Wagner’s absence, took a puck off the chin during a drill, but was OK . . . Wagner’s absence meant a full practice for Lee Stempniak, who remains without full-time NHL employment after the expiration of his PTO agreement. He skated on the fourth line. Cassidy said his next forward, should someone be unavailable, would be a Providence call-up. Cassidy didn’t name potential candidates, but Colby Cave has five goals and 7 points in six games with the P-B’s . . . Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson returned to Sweden to attend to a personal matter, Providence coach Jay Leach told reporters, and will return Monday
Follow Matt Porter on Twitter at @mattyports