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David Pastrnak has all the ingredients to be a leading man

David Pastrnak is only 23 but coach Bruce Cassidy said he’s ready to assume a bigger leadership role. “He understands the game very well. He could grow into that part.”
David Pastrnak is only 23 but coach Bruce Cassidy said he’s ready to assume a bigger leadership role. “He understands the game very well. He could grow into that part.”Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

ST. LOUIS — Hockey fans selected David Pastrnak as one of four All-Star captains. He did not take the honor lightly.

“It’s pretty heavy, man,” he said, wearing his white and silver jersey at media day here. “Never had the ‘C’ before. It’s pulling me down in the chair.”

As usual, the sunny Czech sniper was kidding around. He has been breezing his way through his second All-Star experience, signing autographs and taking pictures and making merry wherever, whenever.

The 23-year-old winger with the NHL-best number in the goal column — 37 in 51 games — has become a bona fide superstar, and while the letter on his jersey is a temporary honor, it’s not out of the question that he might one day earn a weightier one back home.

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When Zdeno Chara retires — as improbable as that might seem — Boston’s captaincy would be open. Patrice Bergeron would be a natural successor, but he is 34. Torey Krug, if the Bruins can keep the 28-year-old long term, is cut out for the gig. But Pastrnak, who is signed through 2023 at a bargain-basement $6.67 million cap hit, could be the man.

He was already talking like a captain on Thursday.

“I don’t want to give up anything to media,” he joked to a reporter who asked who he might choose as his linemates for Saturday’s 3 on 3 contest. “We’re battling a couple injuries in the Atlantic Division, and we want to be the champion, so it’ll be a game-time decision.”

His coach, Bruce Cassidy, believes Pastrnak takes leadership seriously.

“He’s not there yet to be a guy who walks in the room and pushes guys. He’s more, ‘C’mon, let’s go guys, we’re ready tonight, it’s gonna be a good one,’ ” Cassidy said. “As opposed to a Bergy, who’s pretty detailed — ‘We’ve got to manage the puck better, support each other all over the ice.’ He’s more lighthearted. But he talks. He understands the game very well. He could grow into that part.”

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David Pastrnak(right), celebrating a goal with teammate David Krejci, leads the NHL with 37 goals.
David Pastrnak(right), celebrating a goal with teammate David Krejci, leads the NHL with 37 goals.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Pastrnak’s growth on the ice has been immense. After breaking in as 167-pound 18-year-old in 2014, he has 144 goals in the last four seasons, most among NHL right wings. His one-timer is one of the league’s most dangerous weapons. Marketing executives drool over a camera-friendly player who announces his presence at volume level 10: bold suits, wide-brimmed hats, chipped teeth, a ragged tape job on his gold stick, gold-palmed gloves, a tinted visor, flop-tongued skates.

“He’s got that style,” said Bergeron, his linemate. “We need that in the league. Some young kids relate to that. He’s a role model. I’m enjoying playing with him now, and eventually, I’ll enjoy watching him.”

How far he has come.

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To chase his NHL dream, Pastrnak, who grew up in Havirov, Czechia, about 10 miles from the Polish border, moved to Södertälje, Sweden, as a 16-year-old. He was living on his own, playing for the second-division team in that town and learning English and Swedish. All the while, he knew his father was sick.

He was there less than a year when Milan Pastrnak died of cancer on May 21, 2013. It was four days before David’s 17th birthday, at the end of his first season in Sweden. Milan, who played hockey in Czechia and Germany, also left behind his wife, Marcela and eldest son Jakub, five years older than David.

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The next season, in a video for Uppdrag Sport, a news website about the Södertälje SK club, a skinny, stringy-haired Pastrnak shows a reporter around his spartan apartment. Wearing a shiner under his left eye, and speaking in bubbly, halting English, his smile dims only briefly during a sit-down interview.

“I miss him,” said Pastrnak, who had returned to Czechia for the funeral before returning to his icebound sanctuary. “He played hockey, same as I do now, and I have always in my head what he said to me: how he said I must practice, how much hard work . . . every day of practice is for him. Every goal I score is for him.”

The youngest Pastrnak produced 24 points in 36 games that season. A year later at the draft in Philadelphia, the Bruins chose him with the 25th overall pick. With his mom at his side, he kissed his fingers and pointed them toward the sky. His father had been gone 13 months.

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Adding weight — some 30 pounds — and defensive responsibility to his game, he broke out for 34 goals and 70 points in his third season, then kept climbing: 35 and 80 in 2017-18, then 38 and 81 last year. Already at 37 and 70 this season, with 31 games to go, he could reach 50 and 100. Only five Bruins, most recently Cam Neely (50 in 1993-94) have scored 50.

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His shot, zooming off his sharply curved Bauer stick, has become one of the league’s elite weapons.

David Pastrnak’s powerful shot has become one of the best in the league.
David Pastrnak’s powerful shot has become one of the best in the league.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

“If you’d asked me last year, I’d have said his one-timer was so much better,” teammate David Krejci said. “I didn’t know it could get even better than that, but it has.”

Past and present, they praise him.

“I couldn’t take a one-timer to save my life,” said former Bruins star Rick Middleton, who had 51 in 1981-82. “He’s got it down to a science. It’s virtually unstoppable.”

Hall of Famer Scott Stevens, one of the meanest defensemen of the ’80s and ’90s, said Pastrnak would give him trouble.

“He’s unpredictable,” said Stevens, now an NHL Network analyst. “He’ll score in tight, he’ll score on breakaways, he’ll score with the big shot coming down the wing like [Guy] Lafleur, he’ll score from [Alex] Ovechkin’s office. Ovechkin learned to score from different areas, and Pastrnak’s learning, too. Plus, he’s a great playmaker.”

Noted linemate Brad Marchand: “A lot of pure goal scorers don’t have the playmaking ability, or don’t look to pass. He looks to pass as much as he looks to shoot. He cares, he’s come a long way, and he’s still going to improve. which is scary.”

Penguins All-Star goalie Tristan Jarry marveled at “the speed he can get it off. He’s got a different curve from most players,” Jarry said. “That helps a lot, too. He can hide the puck and be deceptive.”

Columbus All-Star defenseman Seth Jones said he’s most worried about Pastrnak’s creativity, but his “obviously lethal” shot had him shaking his head. “He scored on us couple weeks in Boston on a one-timer almost out from the blue line, straight in,” Jones said. “When you have a rocket like that, it’s hard to defend. His passing ability is off the charts. What’s he got, [37] goals at the All-Star break? Not bad. That line is the best line in hockey in my opinion.”

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Good times for No. 88, who is so grounded that he readily recalls his younger days in Czechia, when his time on skates was limited to the hour his team purchased.

“In the NHL, you have the ice for yourself pretty much every day,” Pastrnak said. “After practice, you can stay as long as you want. Before practice, you can go as early as you want. That’s amazing to me.”

As he shuttled from stage to ice sheet here in St. Louis, his star kept on shining.

“He lives for this stuff,” Cassidy said. “As you know, he’s never had a bad day in his life.”


Matt Porter can be reached at matthew.porter@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattyports.