Recent news that Bruins winger Jake DeBrusk has requested a trade out of Boston isn’t all that much of a surprise. DeBrusk has just one goal in his past 13 games, and he’s got only three goals and six points in 17 GP this season.
The 25-year-old generated a career-best 27 goals in 68 games of the 2018-19 campaign. DeBrusk has two game-winning goals this year, but his average ice time of 14:24 reflects Boston’s coaching staff’s lack of confidence in him.
DeBrusk’s trade request was confirmed Tuesday by Bruins GM Don Sweeney, who said DeBrusk would “prefer another opportunity”. That’s a public trade request, and that lowers the leverage Sweeney has in any potential deals. But the fact Boston is peeling away a youngster in the prime of his playing career shows that the Bruins would prefer to rebuild on the fly, rather than re-start their competitive cycle with a full rebuild.
Don’t get me wrong, I still see the Bs doing well this season, but after their first 18 games this year, they’re not nearly as imposing as they’ve been in the last decade-and-then-some.
Over the past 13 seasons, Boston has finished first or second in their division eight times. They’ve been a remarkably durable, consistent organization, but it feels this year they’ve started to slip a little bit. Their 11-7-0 record is pedestrian for them, and key pieces from the past, including center David Krejci and star goalie Tuukka Rask, have moved on from the NHL, for now, at least. They currently sit in fifth spot in the Atlantic Division with 22 points, but they have four games in hand on the fourth-place Detroit Red Wings (who have 23 points) and should make up enough ground to leapfrog over the Wings and into a playoff position.
And while you never can tell what will happen in the post-season once you’re there, the fact the Bruins have slipped to the lower half of the playoff race is telling. Three of their cornerstone forwards are 30 years old or older. Another four roster members are 29 years old or older. Their defense corps is younger, but their goaltending is ordinary, and their bottom-six forwards, DeBrusk included, haven’t contributed much of anything on offense. There are many things to still like about this team, but there are more questions about it this year than there have been in many years.
Bruins ownership, enamored with the monies that come in during a playoff run, prefers a rebuild-on-the-fly rather than a basement-to-roof rebuild. It’s a difficult achievement, given you likely won’t get any more cornerstone competitors when you’re not near the bottom of the league’s standings (and thereby having the best odds at drafting in the No. 1 spot). But in this case, it may well be the right thing for them to do. Once relative greybeards like Patrice Bergeron (36 years old), Brad Marchand (33) and Taylor Hall (30) move on, Boston could be at a crossroads. However, right now, management clearly feels there’s still enough there to win important games in April and beyond.
DeBrusk isn’t the first young NHLer to have early success in his career, only to find it difficult to replicate. A new team could provide the jump-start he’s looking for. The Bruins aren’t likely to get a huge haul for him, but if they can add a legitimate prospect to their development pool, that will make the future easier to handle. If it’s a couple of lower-end draft picks, Boston will have to accept that, knowing they’re also getting out from under DeBrusk’s $3.675 salary cap hit.
But don’t kid yourself – the Bruins are going to do everything they can to keep up with Atlantic rivals in Toronto, Florida and Tampa Bay. Boston has become too accustomed to success to willingly strip their roster bare and start anew. We’ll see, in the next handful of years, if their commitment to their core was worth it.