It was one thing when Boston Bruins winger Jake DeBrusk wanted a move away from the team back in November, when he was continuing a sluggish 2020–21 season with a slow start to this one. Both team and player seemed to understand that the 25-year-old former first-rounder was due for a change of scenery.
“He’s shown a lot of maturity in trying to handle this as appropriately as possible,” Bruins GM Don Sweeney said at the time. “I’m not overly surprised that this eventually came out. I’ve been in the know on this for quite some time and we’ve been trying to look for a hockey trade situation that would help the Boston Bruins and as I do my job and accolade with what Jake thinks is best.”
But now, months since the news first broke of DeBrusk’s dissatisfaction, a combination of factors have transformed this fairly mild trade request into a fascinating dilemma for Sweeney, and his action or inaction over the next few weeks will speak loudly about how he sees his franchise in relation to the rest of a cutthroat Eastern Conference.
Factor No. 1: The trade deadline is almost here! It’s a mere 20 days away! This is the most obvious and comprehensible reason why the whole DeBrusk request is more urgent than it was in November. It’s clear that Sweeney hasn’t yet heard an offer he fancies, but time is running out. He’s under no obligation to trade the kid, of course, but failing to do so could screw up the locker room morale or introduce the dreaded [shudder] distraction to the roster chasing a playoff berth down the stretch.
Factor No. 2: With 53 games under their belts, coming off back-to-back second-round playoff losses, the Bruins are in kind of a weird spot, big-picture. They’re a good team, with a strong blue line, at least one currently effective (and very young) goaltender in Jeremy Swayman, and an offense that generates plenty of chances even if their finishing hasn’t always done the trick this year. But as they sit in that first wild card spot in the conference, their path through the playoffs looks frightening. The Hurricanes, Lightning, and Panthers are all at least one giant step ahead of them, making Boston’s hopes of escaping the second round this time seem fairly slim.
What’s even more frustrating, from an evaluation standpoint, is that it’s hard to tell if these solid but unspectacular Bruins are ascending or descending. Common sense would tell you that it’s time for a GM to let off the gas, since they’re a few years removed from Game 7 of the Finals and their franchise players—namely Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and the just-retired Tuukka Rask—are all well above 30. But through some fantastic drafting from unenviable positions in the first round, the Bruins have been able to refuel on the fly, adding guys like the outstanding scorer David Pastrnak (25, 25th overall in 2014) and cornerstone D-man Charlie McAvoy (24, 14th overall in 2016). Throw in the four-year extension they gave Taylor Hall and you have a team that’s neither old nor young, with a contending window that might be closing, opening, or neither.
Factor No. 3: OK, back to DeBrusk. He’s frickin’ red hot all of a sudden! After just seven goals in his first 43 games, following just five in 41 last year, the man with a career high of 27 back in his sophomore season has regained his form and is doing even more now that he’s earned playing time alongside Marchand and Bergeron. It started, as so many great hockey moments do, in Ottawa, where on Feb. 19 DeBrusk opened the scoring of an eventual 3-2 overtime win with a well-timed knock on a midair puck—just his third time finding the net in over two months. He followed that up two nights later, in the last game before Marchand’s latest suspension expired, by scoring through some smart cherry-picking off a turnover in an impressive 5-1 beatdown of the Avalanche. Then he scored two, including the OT winner, against Seattle on Thursday, and finally on Monday he managed one better, notching his first career hat trick (plus an assist) through a combination of hustle and weak goaltending in a 7-0 laugher against the Kings.
None of these goals are particularly spectacular. Taken as a whole, this hot streak doesn’t have the qualities of a middling player discovering heretofore unseen talents. Rather, this is a fast winger with good hands who’s suddenly finding himself in the right places at the right times, after so many games of the opposite. It’s nice, from the Bruins’ perspective, to see that DeBrusk hasn’t been mentally boomed by the drought, but this isn’t the kind of week that would or should drastically shift their overall evaluation of his ability. What apparently hasn’t changed, either, is DeBrusk’s desire to leave Boston.
“To be honest, I had a meeting with the guys when it first kind of hit or first got out there and I told them I wouldn’t be a distraction, so I respectfully plead the fifth on all of those,” he said when asked, after a long time away from the media, in the Kraken postgame.
So what are the Bruins to do? Do they play the long game and deal DeBrusk for future assets to a team they could meet in the playoffs in two months? Do they feel lucky this year and decide to flip him to a worse team in exchange for a win-now package? Or do they sit tight and hang on to him, taking their chances in the postseason and hoping for the best in his restricted free agency this summer? A lot will depend on the offers, but what Boston decides to do with DeBrusk will go a long way toward indicating how the front office feels about this team, now and for the near future.