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Ryan: How David Pastrnak evolved into hockey’s elite goal scorer

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Like it or not, David Pastrnak was going to have to get used to the line of questioning.

It's easy to see why the gregarious winger has developed into the apple of the NHL's eye as it looks to prop up the next generation of stars to a wide-ranging fan base. Armed with both a howitzer of a shot and an infectious smile that almost seems permanently etched on his face, Pastrnak is everything the league is looking for from a marketing angle — possessing the rare, potent flash, style and charisma often reserved for the greatest stars in their respective wardrobe.

Still, beyond the flashy wardrobe and extensive highlight tape inundated with one-time blasts and Datsyukian-like dangles, the 24-year-old winger's pizazz often becomes as muted as his tape job when asked to boast of his own rather evident talents.

So, as he stood nonchalantly in front of his locker at TD Garden back on October 14, Boston's top sniper was quick to deflect praise onto everyone but himself just minutes after lighting the lamp four times in a 4-2 victory over the Ducks.

His linemates in Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand were the first ones to receive the credit for his latest offensive salvo.

Next, a hearty breakfast just ahead of the matinee matchup received the stick tap.

“Classic eggs and pancakes," he noted.

Then, of course, came the suit.

"As soon as I put this suit on today — Felt good after breakfast. Afternoon games are fun. I like that — just wake up and go play. No time for thinking," Pastrnak said. "No time to overthink stuff.”

Of course, there's much more that factors into Pastrnak's ascension as one of the game's premier scorers beyond just a set of new threads and a stack of flapjacks. You just won't hear him be the one to credit the extensive amount of work he's put in over the years to develop into a Swiss Army Knife in the offensive zone.

But his teammates are more than happy to oblige with such praise.

“He’s playing a video game out there," David Backes said of Pastrnak back in December. "I don’t know what’s wrong with that guy. … I don’t have words.”

For a player often left uncomfortable talking up his own game, Pastrnak's own assault on daily box scores hasn't done him many favors, with questions comparing him to the great scorers over his era like Alex Ovechkin lobbed to him more regularly than a Torey Krug saucer pass on the man advantage.

Comparing oneself to the winger that very well could surpass Wayne Gretzky's goals record in the coming years certainly stands as a lofty assessment, with Pastrnak often doing his best to "temper" such expectations by focusing on a more attainable goal — like reaching the 50-goal benchmark.

“At some point, you know, in my hockey career, I want to become one of those players," Pastrnak said back in October of 2018. "It isn’t going to come (without) work. I’m still pretty young. Obviously I would love to have 50 goals in some point in my career. It's just a question of work.”

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Work hasn't often been a question when it comes to Pastrnak's development since first arriving in Boston six years ago. While an explosive stride and silky mitts raised his profile as a first-round pick during the 2014 NHL Draft, Pastrnak's scoring prowess is predicated on much more than being just a home-run hitter in transition for this B's club.

All it takes is a quick glance at the tape to discern the stark difference in Pastrnak's game from a rookie campaign in 2014-15 to his current standing as the 2019-20 "Rocket" Richard Trophy recipient — doled out annually to the top goal-scorer in the NHL.

Let's take a look at Pastrnak's total body of work in the O-zone this season. Not only can a look at the underlying numbers shed more light on just what made the winger the bane of many a goaltender this winter, it paints a fascinating portrait of a dynamic forward who's augmented his game more than one might realize.

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Aside from the obvious spike in offensive production, some O-zone metrics in Pastrnak's game haven't fluctuated all too much. As a younger skater puts on weight and learns to become more comfortable operating in Grade-A areas of the ice, a willingness to launch pucks closer and closer to the opposing net is a usual indicator of offensive development up in the NHL ranks.

But such hasn't been the case for Pastrnak — who had an average shot distance of 32.12 feet as a rookie in 2014-15. Six years later, that average shot distance has only dipped down to 32.11 feet.

(A look at Pastrnak's shot chart from the 2019-20 regular season).

 

But when it comes to measuring the shot distance on those attempts that have found the back of the net, it's clear that Pastrnak has diversified the ways in which he's been able to light the lamp.

2014-15 Season: 10 goals in 46 games
Average shot distance on goals: 17.5 feet
Shot Type: 

Wrist Shot: 4 goals
Tipped Shot: 2 goals
Slap Shot: 1 goal
Backhand Shot: 1 goal
Snap Shot: 1 goal
Wraparound Shot: 1 goal

2019-20 Season: 48 goals in 70 games
Average shot distance on goals: 22.8 feet
Shot Type: 

Wrist Shot: 19 goals
Slap Shot: 15 goals
Snap Shot: 8 goals
Tipped Shot: 3 goals

Backhand Shot: 2 goals
Deflected Shot: 1 goal 

Clearly, the development of Pastrnak's slap shot — especially that lethal one-time blast on the power play — has added another facet to an already loaded arsenal of offensive tools.

Glancing back over his rookie-year highlights, it's pretty clear why Pastrnak earned the promotion up to the NHL after just 25 games down in Providence.

As seen in performances such as his two-goal outburst against the Lightning on Jan. 13, 2015 (in just his eighth career game), Pastrnak already wielded an advanced offensive skillset at 18 years old — using his speed to put his opposing defensemen on their heels and generate quality looks down low off of harmless zone entries and tumbling rebounds.

“He just gets the puck and winds up and you don’t think too much of it, but then once he picks up speed at the red line and then the defenseman gets stuck standing still just a little bit then he’s in trouble, and the next thing you know…” Tuukka Rask said of Pastrnak back in October 2018. “He’s not even in a danger area really from a goaltender standpoint, but then quick backhand, forehand, then puts it top shelf. So, it’s a tough shot to stop.”

But that one-timer was still a work in progress, with only one of his attempts finding twine during his rookie campaign. Even during that one tally, scored in overtime against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 29, 2015, Pastrnak bore only somewhat of a resemblance to the player known for uncorking blasts from his office at the left circle.

“He was always dynamic, always had the good one-on-one ability to create on his own,” Bruce Cassidy said of Pastrnak's development. “At Providence at 18, he was good at that. Where I think the biggest difference is, I guess, from now to then is his shot. I didn’t see it coming along this well, to be honest with you. He scored a lot of goals in tight, deking and wrist shots, but that one-timer, he’s really built that into his game as one of the elite shooters now. And his strength on the puck, he’s always had strong hands.

“He’d get into battles and he’d fish pucks out as a young kid, but I think it was more with his hands. Now, as soon as it was a body battle, he’d get knocked around. He’s certainly grown, if you look at pictures of him when he was 18 to now, he’s a man. Whereas then, he was a boy. So that’s what you always hope will happen to some of the other younger guys, they’ll develop in kind of that same pattern."

(A look at all 15 of Pastrnak's goals marked as "Slap shots" in the official NHL box scores this season.)

(A look at some of the locations of Pastrnak's goals via the slap shot this season — the left circle is a regular spot, but far from the only area that Pastrnak is comfortable from releasing such an attempt.)

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But even with the consistency that comes from honing a one-timer, especially on the man advantage, what allows Pastrnak to torment defenses with such regularity is his willingness to pull out his bag of tricks and keep the opposition when he gets the biscuit on his stick.

Even though he still isn't exactly a physical specimen at 6 feet and 194 pounds, Pastrnak's willingness to lurk near the crease has often made him the recipient of tip-ins and deflections (four total this season), while the winger is still as lethal as ever when given a window a dangle the puck with a clear lane in front of him.

Couple that with a lethal wrist shot that's able to bury chances down low, in transition and even from the high slot, Pastrnak has developed into the complete package when it comes to lighting the lamp at a consistent clip.

"I don’t know if he knows what he’s going to do," Marchand said of Pastrnak earlier this season. "It’s tough for anyone else to know what he’s gonna do. He just has so many ways that he can beat you. He can take it to the net, shoot, pass. He’s physical, he’s not scared to go in and stand in the corners and compete. Same with the net front. It’s hard to compete with a guy like that and stop him. No matter how you try to shut him down, he can score another way."

(A look at all 19 of Pastrnak's goals  marked as "wrist shots" in the official NHL box scores this season.)

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Ultimately, it took a cataclysmic, world-wide pandemic to do what no netminder or D corps managed to carry out throughout in the 2019-20 campaign — grind Pastrnak's video game-like offensive production to a halt.

Tied with Ovechkin with 48 goals through the second week of March, the stoppage brought upon by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic put an end to Pastrnak's pursuit of being the first B's skater to tally 50 goals in a single season since Cam Neely's 50 in 49 outings during the 1993-94 season. Coupled with the 95 points he accrued since early October, and Pastrnak was ultimately denied a shot of becoming the first Bruin to reach 50 goals and 100+ points in a single year since Phil Esposito's 61-goal, 127-point season in 1974-75.

Granted, Pastrnak is never one to harp on individual achievements, and becoming Boston's first "Rocket" Richard Trophy winner is more than a suitable consolation prize. Another shot at hoisting the Stanley Cup this fall would trump all other accolades.

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To the surprise of very few, Pastrnak didn't take the bait following that matinee tilt against the Ducks back in October. 50 goals remained a possibility, but to compare himself to Ovechkin? Pastrnak wasn't taking that route.

“I wouldn’t call it, to rival him or whatever the word is,” Pastrnak said of comparing his goal-scoring prowess with the Capitals star. “But I definitely want to get to that point as a player. I think I can. It’ll just take time and I think I can do it. I’m not going to rival a guy like Ovie, he’s a special player and he’s been on top for a long time in this league and he’s one of a kind.”

Pastrnak may not have quite the same track record that Ovechkin has maintained for decades now, but it's oddly fitting that both wingers will share the "Rocket" Richard Trophy crown in 2019-20.

It's an honor bestowed to arguably the greatest pure goal scorer the league has ever seen — and a humble, driven kid from the Czech Republic, poised to take the crown for the foreseeable future.

Whether he wants to admit it or not.

[caption id="attachment_567796" align="aligncenter" width="1600"] (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)[/caption]

Stats and graphs via Sean Tierney.