Bruins Summer Series: Can David Pastrnak use playoffs as learning experience?

Joe Haggerty
NBC Sports Boston

Today's piece on David Pastrnak is the last in a 10-part series over two weeks breaking down the core Bruins group of players, and where they stand headed into next season after last spring's Stanley Cup playoff run.

When you look back at the numbers, they certainly didn't tell the entire story.

David Pastrnak finished tied for the team lead with his nine playoff goals and he had a perfectly respectable 19 points in his 24 playoff games during Boston's run to the Stanley Cup Final. But the 23-year-old Bruins right winger wasn't nearly as dominant as he was while scoring 81 points in 66 games during the regular season. Worse still, he appeared to lose confidence during Boston's postseason run and at points was turning away chances to shoot away and rip one-timers that he was scoring on frequently during the regular season.

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How much of it can be attributed to problems related to the thumb injury he suffered away from the rink during the regular season? How much of it was battling through the playoff grind where mental strength is just as important as dazzling physical abilities?

It sure felt like a combination of both, and the Bruins are hoping that Pastrnak's battle with his own self-confidence is something that will make him a better player moving forward.

"I go back to his first postseason against Ottawa and it wasn't very good. Then the following year he was strong in the first round against Toronto and maybe slipped a little bit in the second round. Then this past postseason, I thought he got better and then it got even harder in the third round," said Bruins President Cam Neely in an exclusive 1-on-1 interview with NBC Sports Boston. "So these are learning experiences for these young players to really understand what it takes as you advance in the playoffs. Each round is different than the previous one.

"Then you get to the conference final and the finals and it's tough hockey out there. I look at Pasta and he's grown from the first playoff experience to this last one, and I expect even more growth out of him moving forward. I understand losing confidence, but I don't understand losing confidence and not shooting. That's what I'd talk to him about.

"For me, if you lose confidence, it means putting more pucks on net if you're counted on to score goals. But everybody's different when they lose confidence and everybody thinks differently. Pasta came out and said that he wasn't confident shooting the puck, so maybe he'd just give it to somebody else. From my perspective, you put pucks on net and then everybody has to turn around and find where the puck is. Maybe that creates two opportunities out of it. You could tell he was fighting it because he was struggling with the one-timer."

So is the player based on his own comments following the season where Pastrnak called the 24-game playoff run "a big mental experience." Certainly that was obvious as he flailed away at one-timer attempts and eventually turned down shooting opportunities when the laser shot from the face-off circles is his scoring bread and butter. Pastrnak vowed to be better moving forward, and it's a good bet he will be based on his willingness to work hard, and his undeniable upward trajectory since joining the NHL as the league's youngest player at 18 years old during his rookie season.

Pastrnak is an NHL superstar-in-the-making and his first run to the Stanley Cup Final is another opportunity to better himself as a hockey player.

Now it's more a question as to how good he can be where he finished with 38 goals and 81 points last season, and clearly has the ability to get up in the neighborhood of 50 goals and 100 points if healthy and at his best.

The other question is where he'd be best at moving forward. It would appear the Bruins are comfortable keeping the skilled, game-breaking Pastrnak on the right wing with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand on the Perfection Line. But there's always the option to move Pastrnak down with his fellow Czech David Krejci and diversify their scoring at times, while also potentially moving a bigger, stronger forward with Bergeron and Marchand.

This will be a daily question for Bruce Cassidy and the Bruins coaching staff on a game-by-game basis, but the bigger picture is about Pastrnak's evolution into the best player on the B's roster. The 23-year-old isn't there yet and he showed during the long postseason run that there are still areas where his game can mature into the complete player he will become.

But there's still no denying the bright future for Pastrnak after five brilliant NHL seasons, and that this past spring will end up being another formative experience that is pointed toward being the future of the franchise.    

Key stat: 81 – The career-high number of points in 66 games for Pastrnak, who is just scratching the surface of how good he can be at 23 years old. Now it's about continuing to evolve during the regular season and becoming that kind of dominant player in the postseason as well.  

Pastrnak in his own words: "It was obviously challenging for me, but I had 25 guys to help pick me up just like I would do the opposite [for them]. It was the mental stuff, you know? In this kind of life, even if you don't want to see stuff, read stuff and blah-blah with the media, it's tough. You're always going to see it. And that's fine, you know? I will take a lot of positives from this. I'm just going to get stronger mentally. So it was a good experience. It's a big mental experience. I gained a lot this postseason. The mental stuff is what I learned the most. [I learned] that it doesn't [expletive] matter if you play a bad friggen' game. It's the playoffs. Or if you have a bad shift. It's the playoffs and you just need to come back to the bench and make sure you're ready for the next shift no matter what happened behind you. It's the tough part of hockey sometimes when you get back stuck on something instead of looking forward, and focusing on the next shift. Sometimes you get stuck on thinking what happened before and that brings you down kind of."

The biggest question he faces: Can Pastrnak evolve after admitting to losing confidence during the Stanley Cup playoff run? Was the thumb injury a one-time blip that the young right winger is going to learn from and become an even better pro as a result? Beyond that it's a matter of Pastrnak becoming as good as he wants to be, provided he can continue to improve his two-way game, retain all his offensive gifts and learn how to do deal with being targeted by other teams on a nightly basis.

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Bruins Summer Series: Can David Pastrnak use playoffs as learning experience? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

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