Bruins

Jake DeBrusk will get paid this offseason, and it likely won't be the Bruins

Jake DeBrusk will get paid this offseason, and it likely won't be the Bruins

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.

Jack Studnicka out of Bruins lineup vs. Lightning in NHL round robin

Jack Studnicka out of Bruins lineup vs. Lightning in NHL round robin

The Bruins always intended to mix and match combinations and players during the round robin games while readying for the true Stanley Cup Playoff rounds that await next week, and that’s exactly what they will do against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night.

Promising 21-year-old prospect Jack Studnicka will be a healthy scratch after a disappointing night for the second line in the Sunday afternoon loss to the Flyers, and instead Nick Ritchie will skate in his first game since Phase 4 began at the Toronto bubble.

Studnicka skated with a second group of Bruins players after the main practice, though the youngster was, for all intents and purposes, the second line forward who stood out the most during a pretty invisible afternoon for Krejci and DeBrusk.

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He had four shot attempts in 11:36 of ice time in Sunday’s loss to Philly and had a hustling back-check to break up a 2-on-1 in the first period that was one of the few B’s highlights from the entire afternoon.

“Tuukka is scheduled to start. Ritchie goes in and plays with Krejci and Kuhlman on the right,” said B's head coach Bruce Cassidy. “That’s how they practiced [on Tuesday]. We don’t want to overanalyze one particular game, but that’s where we’re at to a certain extent.

“[Studnicka] is going with the second group. He’s healthy. We’re trying to go with a smaller group on the day before the game. He was out after practice with [Trent] Frederic and [Zach] Senyshyn to get some work.”

Ritchie will play the left wing with Krejci and Karson Kuhlman on the second line, and Jake DeBrusk will drop to third line right wing alongside Charlie Coyle and Anders Bjork.

Ondrej Kase won’t play against Tampa Bay, but is expected to get into this weekend’s round robin finale vs. the Washington Capitals ahead of the traditional playoff rounds. Some of it is obviously about getting all of his players some game action this week, and some of it also about a couple of disappointing games and a “low energy” practice on Tuesday that has caught Cassidy’s attention.

“It’s a tough mental part right now. You don’t know who your opponent is going to be next week and you still want to pick up wins,” said Cassidy. “You’re trying to balance that urgency while preparing for your first playoff opponent, so tomorrow [against Tampa Bay] should be a good test for us and bring out of the best of us.

“Yesterday was a good day. We worked on a lot of offensive principles, shooting the puck and getting to the net. Today we lacked a little energy. We addressed that. Part of the mental challenge for every team in this tournament is creating your own energy. We as coaches might have to look at that as well. Do we need to bring more? Should there be more chatter? Should we assign to the assistant coaches some verbal cues when [players] need to step up.”

Here are the expected line combos and D-pairings for Wednesday night’s round robin game vs. the Lightning:

FORWARD LINES

Brad Marchand Patrice Bergeron David Pastrnak
Nick Ritchie David Krejci Karson Kuhlman
Anders Bjork Charlie Coyle Jake DeBrusk
Joakim Nordstrom Sean Kuraly Chris Wagner

DEFENSIVE PAIRINGS

Zdeno Chara Charlie McAvoy
Torey Krug Brandon Carlo
Matt Grzelcyk Jeremy Lauzon

GOALTENDERS

Tuukka Rask
Jaroslav Halak

Brad Marchand 'not concerned' about how Bruins have looked in first few games

Brad Marchand 'not concerned' about how Bruins have looked in first few games

The Bruins certainly haven’t impressed anybody out of the gate thus far in dropping both of their games after a five-month layoff due to COVID-19.

They have been outscored 8-2 in losing both their exhibition game vs. the Blue Jackets and their opening round robin game against the Flyers, and there hasn’t been much to write home about it in either game.

David Pastrnak scored on a nice individual play vs. Columbus and Chris Wagner scrapped for a fourth line goal vs. Philly, but the Perfection Line has been quiet while the special teams haven’t been all that good either.

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Both goaltenders Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak looked rusty between the pipes as well, so most of the team’s strengths during the regular season have been MIA thus far in the Toronto bubble. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Pastrnak had one shot on goal apiece until late in the proceedings against the Flyers and were all minus-2 or worse when the game was over, so clearly Boston’s best players left a lot to be desired at both ends of the ice.

Still, don’t count them as concerned with two more round robin games left against Tampa Bay and Washington prior to the real playoff rounds starting next week.

“Instead of trying to make plays out of nothing, we’re going to have to try to get [pucks] in deep a little bit more and wear teams down low while making our plays in deep,” said Marchand. “We do tend to want to be more of a rush line and create opportunities on the rush, but with the ice the way it is right now it’s too tough. We’re just going to have to simplify a little bit. We’re going to get our looks and when they are there and they’re clear, then we can make them. But the ones where we’re trying to force it, we need to be a little smarter and get it in deep.

We’re not concerned about the way the last few games have gone. We’ve been off for six months and it’s going to take a couple of games to get back into it. But when we do, then [the goals] are going to come in bunches.

Certainly Boston’s top players looked passive with the puck, slow to react and hesitant to shoot when given a lane, and that is not very much like any of the Perfection Line guys when they are feeling it offensively.

In the past, there have been plenty of instances when Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak can look downright bad on the ice if there really isn’t much to play for within the game. They looked dreadful for a week or two at the end of the 2018-19 regular season once everything was clinched for the postseason, but then came on like gangbusters in the NHL postseason against the Toronto Maple Leafs and everybody else.

Perhaps they weren’t going full tilt in round robin and exhibition games that have little bearing on the actual playoffs, but that should change with the next couple of round robin tilts against Tampa Bay and Washington. These are teams that the Bruins will absolutely want to make statements against as they edge closer to the traditional four rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

So the Bruins' top players aren’t "concerned” right now, but there might be a different answer from them if it’s more of the same Wednesday night against the rival Lightning.