This past season has been a key one, and a bit of a crossroads, for young Bruins left winger Jake DeBrusk.
The 23-year-old winger watched his offensive numbers recede this season after posting career highs of 27 goals and 42 points in 68 games last season. In three fewer games this year, DeBrusk hadn’t cracked 20 goals and had just 35 points while also registering as a minus player for the first time in his three seasons with the Black and Gold.
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The slight step back manifested itself in him getting benched a couple of times in-game and with DeBrusk getting moved around among the top-9 forwards for the first time with the Bruins. For the most part in his Bruins career, DeBrusk had been paired with David Krejci on the second line and that was an effective combo during the boom periods of his largely streaky production.
DeBrusk got off to a slow start with one goal in 12 games during the month of October and he ended the regular season with just one point in the final 14 games leading into the NHL hitting the pause button in mid-March.
All of it segues into a key postseason for DeBrusk this summer after scoring fewer goals (6-to-4) in twice as many games (12-to-24) in last spring’s run to the Stanley Cup Final as compared to a promising, clutch showing against Toronto two postseasons ago.
Once this postseason has finished — either good or bad for DeBrusk — it will be about restricted free agency with a second contract due to the one player who's panned out for Boston from the fateful first round of the 2015 NHL Draft.
The COVID-19 outbreak couldn’t have come at a worse time for DeBrusk, who has averaged 20 goals and 40 points over his three NHL seasons since cracking the Boston lineup. He was hoping earlier in the season that it wouldn’t be a long, drawn out process for a second deal like it was for Bruins RFAs Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo last summer.
“Obviously that’s going to be my situation [as an RFA]. Hopefully not [as a holdout], but maybe, possibly next year just looking around the league you see different things with guys dragging it out,” said DeBrusk, who will be joined by Matt Grzelcyk and Anders Bjork as restricted free agents for the Bruins. “It’s one of those where you ask questions on the business side of it. Things change and different stuff happens with talks, but at the same time I mostly just try to stay out of it. I try to stay dialed in to get ready for training camp and the season. I guess when that time comes, though, I’ll be more aware of what to expect.”
One would expect that DeBrusk saw a couple of forward peers from his draft class, Brock Boeser (3 years, $17.625 million) and Travis Konecny (six years, $33 million), both top $5 million per season on second contracts they signed this past year. So DeBrusk knew what kind of payday awaited him when things were running along as usual.
Boeser is in a bit of a different class given his upside and production, but DeBrusk and Konecny would have been comparable players had DeBrusk surpassed 20 goals and 40 points with another month of games played (which he certainly would have done with 12 games left in the season).
A tough postseason after a bit of a down regular season might slide DeBrusk back into the $4.5 million per season range, but it’s expected that he’ll be able to command something in that neighborhood after averaging 20 goals per season in the NHL.
All of it puts the Bruins into a challenging fiscal position with the salary cap expected — at best — to remain flat around the $81.5 million ceiling mark that it was this past season. Initially it was expected to go up to between $84-88 million prior to lopping off the final month of the 2019-20 NHL regular season, and prior to the NHL being expected to play in empty arenas when the Stanley Cup Playoffs do resume.
Given that the Bruins have $63 million committed for next season and would be expected to sign at least DeBrusk, Torey Krug, Zdeno Chara, Grzelcyk and Bjork to contracts once the season has been completed, it may very well come down to a decision between Krug and DeBrusk. If that becomes the case, Bruins GM Don Sweeney might have to finally entertain some of the overtures about dealing DeBrusk after he avoided trade temptation a couple of years ago when the New York Rangers were looking for the young winger in exchange for top-4 defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
These days DeBrusk is going to command a big jump in salary to the $4.5-5-5 million average annual value and he still hasn’t quite developed into a consistently productive top-6 offensive threat on the second line. If there was a time to deal away DeBrusk in the midst of salary cap constraints, this would be the time to do it while getting back pretty close to maximum value for a young, still-developing player.
With Nick Ritchie and Bjork both in the fold as young top-9 left wings, they would certainly have other young forwards ready to step into the second and third line slots while coming at a smaller price tag than DeBrusk will command next season. And there’s more left wing depth organizationally as well with Jakub Lauko headed into his second professional season in Providence after scoring five goals in 22 games as a 19-year-old in the AHL last season.
What does all this mean?
If the Bruins have intentions of signing Krug to an extension in the neighborhood of $7-8 million rather than letting him go in unrestricted free agency, then it could very well be that DeBrusk’s days are numbered in Boston. A year ago, that might have been preposterous to think coming off a 27-goal season at 22 years old, but as we’ve all learned the entire world can change pretty quickly in the span of a year.
One thing is certain: The Bruins can’t bring everybody back with their salary cap situation and a slew of key players in Krug, DeBrusk, Grzelcyk, Bjork and Chara all looking for new deals. The reigning NHL general manager of the year certainly is going to have his hands full attempting to make all of the pieces fit as the NHL salary cap number tumbles right along with league revenues.