By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Boston Bruins have saved their trickiest negotiation for last, as winger Jake DeBrusk now sits as the last piece of restricted free agent business left for Don Sweeney & Co. to handle this offseason.
Without a deal, and not eligible for arbitration, the 24-year-old DeBrusk is currently sitting in no man's land. In a terrible, flat-capped market that's outright bullying established talents into accepting 40 cents for their dollar-worthy talents, and with the team he plays for possessing just over $6 million in cap space and with their captain also without a deal, too.
It's just not the spot DeBrusk's camp envisioned with their hopes for a high-dollar payout.
And that's without getting into DeBrusk's on-ice struggles in a straight-up bizarre and maddeningly inconsistent season.
In his normal spot to the left of David Krejci on Boston's second line, the DeBrusk-Krejci combination never seemed to get things going. Not to Bruce Cassidy's liking, anyway. Their lack of success was repeatedly brought up by Cassidy when the Bruins struggled, arguably led to the Nick Ritchie trade, and the results backed up Cassidy's concerns.
Together as a pair for the third straight season, the Krejci-DeBrusk combination had their worst year yet at five-on-five, with the duo averaging 31.07 shots for, 2.1 goals for, and 2.21 expected goals for per 60 minutes of play in 2019-20. They were also just a plus-three from a pure scoring standpoint (17-14), which was significantly worse than the on-ice plus-11 they had together in both 2018 and 2019. (All these numbers were tandem-lows in their three years of chemistry below The Bergeron Line.)
The B's revolving door on Krejci's right, while absolutely nothing new, certainly didn't help.
But in his third full NHL season, the Bruins needed (and expected) more consistency from DeBrusk, and it never came.
"I think his upside is tremendous," said Krejci. "I think he can take games over. He had that one amazing game against Carolina, he scored two goals I think in the third period. Once he gets going, he’s pretty gifted. He just has to find a way to be more consistent. It’s not just him, it’s his linemates and his teammates. But I think that’s the biggest thing for him, he just has to find a way to be more consistent. If he does that, he’s going to be a pretty dangerous player in this league every night."
And after another blazing-or-freezing season, and a similarly boom-or-bust postseason effort in the Toronto bubble, it's entirely possible that we're staring at a reality that says DeBrusk is more suited to be a third-line wing on a Cup-winning team. But the No. 14 overall pick from the 2015 NHL Draft isn't ready to put such ceilings on himself.
"I feel confident in my play [and] I feel confident in how I can help this team," DeBrusk said on his year-end conference call. "I know what kind of player I can be. And this year I don't think it could be replicated to be honest with you."
One year after scoring 27 goals, DeBrusk's struggles in a coronavirus-shortened regular season left him at 19 goals, and after he scored just one goal in his final 14 games before the pandemic paused the year with the B's in Buffalo.
"I'm still one goal away from 20 goals and that's one thing I looked at once the first pause happened," DeBrusk admitted. "I felt like I was completely different than what that said. It's not easy to do in this League, but I definitely can be a lot better and I haven't even really turned into that yet, which is frustrating, but I think that these learning experiences from my struggles have really helped me or will help me as a pro when I continue on here."
It makes for one hell of a headache when it comes to assessing DeBrusk's next payday, too.
While we mention the obvious lack of leverage from DeBrusk's camp, DeBrusk slid a year of his entry-level deal, giving the Bruins four pro seasons for the service-time price of three. If that didn't happen, perhaps DeBrusk is part of that 2019 headache that included bridge deals for Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo, and after that aforementioned 27-goal season. His camp will naturally want (or at the very least ask) to be rewarded for their helping extend Boston's window from a financial standpoint.
And for all his consistency issues, DeBrusk still ranks as the 12th-highest scoring member of the star-studded 2015 draft class since breaking into the NHL in 2017, and his 62 goals are the 10th-most among the class over that three-season run. DeBrusk has also been the Bruins' fourth-best playoff goal scorer and sixth-highest playoff scorer over that three-season run.
But, again, the market can't be ignored.
The Canucks' Jake Virtanen just signed a two-year, $5.1 million contract. Same for Dallas winger Denis Gurianov. Virtanen put up almost identical numbers to DeBrusk this past season, but DeBrusk's 27-goal season-high beats Virtanen's high (18). Gurianov, meanwhile, scored 20 goals in his first full NHL season, and was a playoff monster for the Stars (17 points in 27 games). DeBrusk is closer to these guys than the still-unsigned Mat Barzal in New York and the Jackets' Pierre-Luc DuBois.
It's more than reasonable to think that the Bruins can reward DeBrusk's solid past and his still-promising future on a bridge deal — say for $6 to 6.5 million or so over two years — without forcing hard decisions elsewhere on the roster.
Though that sounds easy enough, you also can't ignore some of the noise surrounding DeBrusk this offseason.
DeBrusk has been involved in trade rumors really since the Bruins bowed out in round two. That alone prompts natural talk of the sides either being far off in money or the Bruins not believing in DeBrusk being worth the investment. The Bruins have also been tied to free agent left wing Mike Hoffman again and again (he'd take DeBrusk's job on line two), and they still have a glaring need for another high-impact, left-shot defender. DeBrusk may be the perfect chip to use to acquire such a piece.
"I think we’re in a very comfortable position to finalize the RFA guys we have to," Sweeney said after re-signing Matt Grzelcyk (and before signing Karson Kuhlman and Zach Senyshyn to low-money deals) last weekend. "And [to] look for other opportunities that we may be able to pursue."
Which of those two groups DeBrusk files under, of course, is the real question.