A painful 2023 offseason is nearing an end for the Boston Bruins.
In the span of two months, the Bruins have undergone one of the most significant talent drains in recent memory.
Along with the retirements of both Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, a severe cap crunch prompted a sell-off trade of Taylor Hall, and hamstrung Boston in its efforts to retain Tyler Bertuzzi and Dmitry Orlov in free agency.
But as a retooling Bruins roster sets its sights on 2023-24, Don Sweeney and Boston’s front-office personnel still have one order of business to turn to — the future of 26-year-old winger Jake DeBrusk.
Even though the Bruins should be flush with cap space next summer, Boston might want some clarity on a pending UFA like DeBrusk before he officially hits the open market next offseason.
But what type of “clarity” are the Bruins exactly looking for with a player like DeBrusk?
As the Bruins head into the post-Bergeron era, the top focus for Sweeney and his staff is building a stout foundation for the future in order to guarantee sustainable success.
All things considered, they’re already in a good spot.
Boston has a 60-goal scorer in David Pastrnak and two Norris-caliber defensemen in Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm signed through at least 2030. Jeremy Swayman will be due a pay raise next summer, but is one of the top young netminders in the game. Youngsters like Mason Lohrei, Matthew Poitras, and Georgii Merkulov offer hope for the future.
But does a winger like DeBrusk also factor into the mix as a player worth retaining as a franchise fixture in the years ahead?
Given the returns he put forth last season, DeBrusk seems like a top-six weapon worth keeping for the long haul.
With 119 goals and 226 points over 385 career games with the Bruins, DeBrusk has been a productive forward for Boston since making his debut back in 2017. But the winger has been prone to some peaks and valleys as far as his production goes, especially earlier in his career.
But last season was a step in the right direction for DeBrusk, who appeared rejuvenated after Boston’s coaching change.
With his trade request in the rearview, DeBrusk was regularly deployed as a top-line winger next to Bergeron and Brad Marchand — scoring 27 goals and posting a career-high 50 points over 68 games in 2022-23.
Had he not missed six weeks of the season after suffering a broken fibula during the 2023 Winter Classic, DeBrusk was on pace for 35 goals. Over his last 82 regular-season games (including the 2021-22), the affable winger posted 37 goals and 66 points.
Seems like a player worth keeping around, especially given that he’s just entering his prime.
“It was obviously a crazy year ago at this point in time and even before that,” DeBrusk said back in May. “I did feel lucky. I felt lucky to be [in Boston] every day. Even just with the start that we had as a group. With the guys in this locker room, it just felt special, and I tried to take every moment I could of any day that I was here, and I was just really grateful for the opportunity.”
But what kind of contract will DeBrusk command, especially with the NHL’s salary-cap ceiling set to soar next summer?
Yes, the Bruins are projected to have over $29 million in cap space next summer if the cap jumps up to at least $87.5 million. Still, Boston doesn’t want to shed a huge chunk of it on just DeBrusk, given Swayman’s next pay raise and the team’s hopes of adding a top-six pivot in free agency.
As the Bruins ramp up negotiations, Sweeney and Co. could opt to offer a deal comparable to the one that Brandon Hagel just signed with the Lightning last week. Hagel, 25, just signed an eight-year contract extension with an annual cap hit of $6.5 million.
Even though that term is significant, the Bruins could stomach it if they can keep a potential 30-goal scorer in DeBrusk around $6-6.5 million per season.
Locking in a player with that cap hit before the cap really surges next summer (and likely, the summer after that) should make that contract age well, similar to how McAvoy’s $9.5 million cap hit through 2030 should continue to look better and better over time.
Even though Hagel is a bit younger than DeBrusk, both wingers offer similar skillsets. Hagel scored 30 goals and posted 64 points over 81 games last season, while DeBrusk’s 82-game pace last year had him tabbed for 35 goals and 64 points.
In some respects, DeBrusk offers even more value given the strides he’s made on the defensive end.
Although some of his improved D-zone play might have been a byproduct of playing with Bergeron for a majority of his 5v5 reps, DeBrusk also developed into a trusty contributor on the top penalty-kill unit in the league, averaging 1:22 of shorthanded TOI per game. When his feet are moving, DeBrusk is a difference-maker down both ends of the ice.
DeBrusk’s more well-rounded skillset could see him command a bit more than Hagel if Boston intends on getting a deal done before next summer.
But if $6.5 million can be a suitable starting point for both parties, the onus falls on the Bruins to try to get a deal done before the regular season ramps up.
Even though Boston could opt to play the waiting game to see if DeBrusk can replicate that 2022-23 production without Bergeron driving play down the middle, such a move also invites the risk of DeBrusk further bolstering his value.
At the very worst, DeBrusk still holds plenty of value as a 25+ goal scorer with a promising defensive game.
DeBrusk is a fascinating asset on Boston’s roster, given his high upside and his coveted skillset that could also make him a valuable trade chip if things go south for the 2023-24 roster.
But if a Bruins roster reliant on its stingy defensive and stout goaltending can remain competitive, keeping one of their few proven offensive conduits up front in DeBrusk stands as the best move — both in 2023-24 and especially in the years ahead.
Sign up for Bruins updates🏒
Get breaking news and analysis delivered to your inbox during hockey season.
Stay up to date on all the latest news from Boston.com