The Bruins depart Monday afternoon for a three-game swing in Canada, the start of a stretch in which they will be on the road for six of their next seven games.
One quarter of the way through the season they remain in the mix for a playoff spot, but are by no means comfortable. Their goaltending is taking shape, though not a consistent strength, and they have yet to prove they can muster meaningful offense beyond their top trio, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak.
In the last three games, forced to go without Marchand (suspended for slew-footing Vancouver’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson), they went 1-1-1, failed to muster a lead in two of those games, and scored a meager five goals over 180-plus minutes. Thanks mainly to Jeremy Swayman’s goaltending and some buttoned-up defense front to back, even without top blueliner Charlie McAvoy Saturday with Tampa in town, it was encouraging that they also allowed only five goals in those three games.
All of which is to say, at 12-8-1, they’ve shown they can stay above water, but still have some fixin’ to do if they want to be considered among the heavyweights in the East.
Upon wrapping up their Canadian trip Saturday night in Calgary, there will be exactly 100 days remaining until the March 21 trade deadline, plenty of time for general manager Don Sweeney to shop for some answers.
The most pressing question at the moment is what to do with Jake DeBrusk — which goes hand in hand with what to do about secondary scoring.
DeBrusk, the fifth-year left winger, has asked out, and Sweeney is on record saying that he’s been looking for the right fit. It’s pointless, and risky, to keep DeBrusk and his $4.85 million salary parked on the fourth line, even if his game, post-trade request, has looked better. He and Curtis Lazar were the only wingers not named Pastrnak to score in the last three games.
DeBrusk grew up in Western Canada, played junior at WHL Swift Current, and a deal to return him out that way — say, Edmonton or Calgary — could be just the career boost he needs. But Sweeney isn’t running the “Home-Is-Where-The-Heart-Is” adoption/placement agency.
As his roster is presently constituted, Sweeney’s best move would be to bundle an asset or two along with DeBrusk and bring in a skilled No. 2 center able to wring more goals from Taylor Hall (five this season) and Craig Smith (two). Charlie Coyle’s best value remains as a puck-protecting No. 3 pivot who can spot higher in the order when needed. Hall and Smith need more of a distributor than Coyle, someone in the David Krejci mold, who can provide more give-and-go passes and rush opportunities.
If that center is out there, it’s a good bet his current team won’t be motivated to wheel him until March 21 draws closer. If so, the Bruins then have to ask how prudent it is to keep playing DeBrusk, particularly in the No. 4 hole, at the risk of a trade asset getting injured. The answer: not very.
As is often the case around trade requests, it’s awkward. It’s also regrettable. DeBrusk had his mojo going for his first two years here and it then disappeared, for reasons unknown. He’s opted not to talk about it publicly, so we don’t know his thoughts. Too bad. A full picture would be good for all to see.
We do know such requests can make for hasty, sometimes awful deals. Tom Fergus was the rare Bruin to ask out of here when then GM Harry Sinden offered him peanut shells for a salary increase headed into the 1985-86 season.
For all Sinden’s legendary haggling, it was rare for anyone to ask out. Sinden quickly accommodated Fergus, 23, flipping him to the Maple Leafs for Bill Derlago.
It was a dreadful deal. Fergus, with a gifted wrist shot, posted excellent numbers (284 points in 332 games) over the following five years with the Leafs. Sinden shoveled Derlago out of here after 39 games and brought in big defenseman Wade Campbell from Winnipeg. Campbell made even less of an impact than Derlago, logging but 28 games over three seasons. Ouch.
It would be a disaster for Sweeney to cash out of the 25-year-old once-promising DeBrusk, one of the club’s three first-round draft picks in 2015, for a Derlago-type return. The secondary scoring needs help and DeBrusk right now is the best trade chip to find it.
Keep in mind, too, that Fergus’s trade value was far greater. He went 31-42—73 in 79 games as the club’s No. 4 scorer in his final season in Boston. No surprise he wanted a decent pay boost.
Meanwhile, DeBrusk is carrying a big cap hit, low-production numbers, and a fourth-liner’s profile on a team that really could use the pop he showed when he was younger, more eager, and more willing to drive to the net. Truthfully, given DeBrusk’s slump in value, Sweeney could be hard pressed to come up with a Derlago equivalent for him.
Meanwhile, after a day off Sunday, it’s back to work Monday morning with a practice in Brighton followed by an afternoon flight to Vancouver. No knowing yet if coach Bruce Cassidy (COVID-19 protocol) will be on the trip. No knowing if McAvoy (non-COVID illness on Saturday) is ready to return. No knowing how long fellow defenseman Jakub Zboril will be out of action with his injured right leg.
No matter the team, no matter the time of season, there is always stuff on the “to do” list. Right now, No. 1 is what to do about DeBrusk.