It’s a rare thing for a player to jump immediately to the NHL after being drafted, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that only two of the players selected at the 2014 draft are currently playing at hockey’s highest level. Nor should it be surprising that first overall pick Aaron Ekblad is one of the two.
What’s really shocking is that the other is David Pastrnak, a 167-pound Czech who went 25th overall to the Boston Bruins. Even more shocking is that he’s flourishing.
There’s a school of thought that the best approach to prospects is patience; that rushing them to the NHL can produce adverse results. It’s something I believe in, and more significantly, it’s a philosophy of which Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland has spent most of the last two decades demonstrating the wisdom. Holland explained his approach to author Jason Farris for the book Behind the Moves:
I spent nine years in the American Hockey League… Hartford would bring all these kids in—and the organizations that I was with in Detroit and Hartford, they were struggling organizations. The minute a young kid would play well for six weeks, he’d get [called] up and [provide] a little bit of spark [to the parent club,] and then six weeks later they would [be sent back] down and they were just beaten up. The league was too tough. They couldn’t make a difference. It took you another few weeks, few months to get those players back to where they [had been] confidence-wise and playing-wise. So from a player-development standpoint—a personal-development standpoint—[I learned that] people are ready when they’re ready and [I learned about] the importance of building a foundation.
The Bruins may yet regret bringing Pastrnak up at such a young age. He is, after all, still listed at less than 170 pounds, and as Chris Mason of the Boston Herald reports, he’s missed practice time to “maintenance.” But while physically there’s a case against exposing Pastrnak to the rigours of NHL hockey, his performance suggests that he meets Holland’s criteria of being ready.
Pastrnak’s road to the NHL started in the American League. Because he was drafted out of Sweden rather than a major junior league in Canada or the U.S., he was (unlike most of his peers) eligible to play in the AHL as a teenager.
He took the league by storm, putting up 27 points in 24 games. On a Providence Bruins team loaded with older prospects and veteran professionals, nobody else on the team managed to reach a point-per-game pace. Pastrnak exceeded it.
That’s pretty impressive. Far more incredible is that Pastrnak is the best per-game scorer on the team even if we deduct his power-play points from the equation. Pastrnak has scored one goal and three assists on the Providence power play; at even-strength he has nine goals and 23 points in 24 games.
That kind of production would be extremely impressive coming from a 22-year-old. From a kid who won’t turn 19 until May, it’s almost unbelievable.
The Bruins didn’t give Pastrnak an NHL opportunity. He took it, stealing it away from older prospects and other options. He was so good in the AHL that on merit he flat-out deserved it. And he wasn’t finished.
Pastrnak has been brilliant in the NHL, too. He has 21 points in 35 games for Boston, including 15 points in his last 19 games. He’s scoring a lot, and he’s getting better all the time. And he’s doing a lot more than just score.
Pastrnak has a plus-18.3 relative Corsi rating for the Bruins. People who spend a lot of time with so-called fancy stats will know that’s incredibly impressive. For people who don’t spend a lot of time looking at lines of numbers, it’s worth unpacking.
Corsi is shorthand for on-ice shot attempts at even strength; in other words, all the shots, missed shots and blocked shots for and against when a player is on the ice. A plus-18.3 number means that in an average hour, the Bruins’ rate of picking up shots, missed shots and blocked shots versus their opponents’ rate is 18 better with Pastrnak on the ice than it is with him off.
That tells us that when Pastrnak is on the ice, Boston is shockingly good at out-shooting the opposition.
All of that out-shooting leads to out-scoring too. In an average hour of even-strength play with Pastrnak on the ice, the Bruins score three goals. The opposition scores less than half that.
Some of that’s due to circumstance, as head coach Claude Julien has wisely been judicious in his use of the rookie, generally getting him out against mediocre opposition and starting him in the offensive zone as often as possible. But it’s still incredibly impressive for any NHL’er, never mind an 18-year-old.
Kirk Luedeke, who has spent years covering the Bruins and works as a scout for independent outlet Red Line Report, makes it clear that Pastrnak’s success comes at least in part thanks to a remarkable level of drive:
Pastrnak is doing incredible things, and he’s more than half a decade away from what we would expect to be the prime years of his career. If he’s this good now, his ceiling is incredible. In a difficult year for the Bruins, he’s one of the rare examples of something going very, very right.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.