A painful 2023 offseason is drawing to a close for the Boston Bruins.
In the space of two months, the Bruins experienced one of their biggest talent losses in recent memory.
Along with the retirements of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, a severe cap crisis sparked a Taylor Hall sell-off and hampered Boston’s efforts to keep Tyler Bertuzzi and Dmitry Orlov in free agency.
But as the Bruins’ evolving roster sets their sights on the 2023-24 season, Don Sweeney and the Boston front office staff still have one task to worry about: the future of 26-year-old winger Jake DeBrusk.
While the Bruins should have plenty of player capacity next summer, Boston might want some clarity on an upcoming UFA like DeBrusk before he officially launches next season’s break.
But what kind of “clarity” exactly are the Bruins looking for in a player like DeBrusk?
As the Bruins enter the post-Bergeron era, the primary focus of Sweeney and his staff is to lay a solid foundation for the future to ensure continued success.
All in all, they are already in a good position.
Boston has a 60-goal scorer in David Pastrnak and two Norris-caliber defenders in Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm who are signed until at least 2030. Jeremy Swayman is due for a raise next summer but is one of the best young goalkeepers in the game. Young players like Mason Lohrei, Matthew Poitras and Georgii Merkulov give hope for the future.
But is a winger like DeBrusk a player worth keeping as a regular part of the franchise for years to come?
Given the results he’s had over the past season, DeBrusk looks like a top-six weapon worth keeping for the long haul.
With 119 goals and 226 points in 385 career games with the Bruins, DeBrusk has been a prolific forward for Boston since his debut in 2017. But the winger has been prone to some ups and downs when it comes to his performance, especially earlier in his career.
But last season was a step in the right direction for DeBrusk, who looked rejuvenated after the Boston coaching change.
Backed by his swap desire, DeBrusk was regularly used as a top winger alongside Bergeron and Brad Marchand – scoring 27 goals and a career-high 50 points in 68 games in the 2022-23 season.
Had he not missed six weeks of the season after breaking his fibula at the 2023 Winter Classic, DeBrusk would have scored 35 goals. In his last 82 regular-season games (including the 2021–22 season), the likeable winger has recorded 37 goals and 66 points.
Seems to be a player worth staying around, especially considering he’s only just reached his prime.
“It’s obviously been a crazy year at this point and before that,” DeBrusk said back in May. “I was really lucky. I was lucky enough to be [in Boston] daily. Even right at the start that we had as a group. It just felt special with the guys in that dressing room and I tried to take advantage of every moment I could here and I was really grateful for the opportunity.”
But what kind of contract will DeBrusk have, especially given that the NHL’s salary cap is set to skyrocket next summer?
Yes, the Bruins are expected to have $29 million in cap space next summer when the cap increases to at least $87.5 million. Still, given Swayman’s next raise and the team’s hopes of adding a top-six pivot in free agency, Boston doesn’t want to lose a big chunk of it just to DeBrusk.
As the Bruins move forward with negotiations, Sweeney and co. could choose to offer a deal comparable to the one Brandon Hagel just signed with the Lightning last week. Hagel, 25, just signed an eight-year contract extension with an annual cap of $6.5 million.
While that period is significant, the Bruins could take it if they can keep a potential 30-goal goalscorer in DeBrusk for about $6 million to $6.5 million a season.
Retaining a player with that cap before the cap really ramps up next summer (and likely the summer after that too) should see that contract age well, much like McAvoy’s $9.5 million cap by 2030 with should always look better over time.
Although Hagel is slightly younger than DeBrusk, both wingers have similar skillsets. Hagel had 30 goals and 64 points in 81 games last season, while DeBrusk’s 82-game performance last year gave him 35 goals and 64 points.
In some ways, DeBrusk offers even more value given the strides he’s made defensively.
While some of his improved D-Zone play may have been a byproduct of teaming up with Bergeron on much of his 5-on-5 reps, DeBrusk also developed into a reliable contributor in the league’s top penalty-killing unit, Mit average 1:22 shorthand TOI per game. When his feet move, DeBrusk makes the difference on both ends of the ice.
DeBrusk’s broader skill set could see him mastering a little more than Hagel if Boston intends to strike a deal before next summer.
But if $6.5 million can be a suitable starting point for either party, the responsibility rests with the Bruins in trying to seal a deal before the regular season begins.
While Boston could wait to see if DeBrusk can repeat production from 2022-23 without Bergeron mid-playing the game, such a move also carries the risk of DeBrusk continuing to increase its value.
Worst-case scenario, DeBrusk is still of great value as a goalscorer with 25+ goals and a promising defensive end.
DeBrusk is an intriguing asset in the Boston roster given his high potential and coveted skills that could also make him a valuable trading chip if things go poorly for the 2023-24 roster.
But if a Bruins roster that relies on their stingy defense and strong goaltender can remain competitive, keeping one of his few proven offensive channels in charge in DeBrusk — both in the 2023-24 season and in DeBrusk — is the best move especially in the years to come.
Sign up for Bruins updates🏒
Get breaking news and analysis delivered to your inbox throughout the hockey season.
Subscribe to Newsletter
Stay up to date with the latest news from Boston.com