(First in a series on key younger Bruins players heading into the 2022-23 season.)
After several seasons of turmoil, Jake DeBrusk made the most of a plum assignment.
He scored 25 goals and 42 points last season while riding most of the second half with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. DeBrusk would have likely reached career-best marks if he had skated with those two the entire season.
Now that new Bruins coach Jim Montgomery has arrived, can DeBrusk keep growing his game and maintain that momentum?
In Dallas, Montgomery demanded his team win faceoffs, not take undisciplined penalties, limit odd-man rushes against, and win the net-front and special-teams battles. DeBrusk is not a center and rarely takes penalties, but he can help Montgomery’s “process,” as the coach referred to it, in the other three departments.
It’s reductive to the point of inaccuracy to say the Bruins chose DeBrusk over Bruce Cassidy, but their well-publicized lack of connection was one of the factors in the former coach’s June 6 dismissal.
DeBrusk asked to be traded last November, when he found himself in the press box after a slow start. He held that request while signing a two-year, $8 million contract extension last March, then rescinded his ask following Cassidy’s termination.
The No. 14 pick in the ill-fated 2015 draft was billed as a top-six scorer, a future No. 2 left wing behind Marchand. While DeBrusk spent most of his first two seasons as David Krejci’s left wing and was the net-front man on the No. 1 power-play unit, Cassidy’s frustration with his lack of consistency and attention to detail saw him spiral down the lineup.
DeBrusk, like Danton Heinen and Ryan Donato before him, shifted from left to right wing. He spent time on the third and fourth lines. He was booted to the second power-play group, then saw more time on the PK than the PP. He was an occasional healthy scratch, mostly because of faulty backchecking or lack of effort.
Cassidy promoted him to the No. 1 line amid a January reset that helped the Bruins realize their 51-win, 107-point potential. Despite skating his off wing, DeBrusk enjoyed the benefits of playing with elite linemates. Marchand drove play, attacking defenders and winning his battles. Bergeron won the puck regularly and as ever, was in perfect defensive position. DeBrusk was able to use his gifts — speed, soft hands, and puck pursuit — to become a breakaway threat and secondary offensive option for his elite linemates.
“It’s all there for him,” Cassidy said in late February, when DeBrusk was on a tear of seven goals in five games. “Ability to finish. Sees the ice. Footspeed to beat guys. When he’s on pucks on the forecheck, he’s very dangerous. Two-hundred-foot game if he can consistently be strong on pucks on the walls. That’s an area that most wingers, all guys, go through, young guys. That takes almost years.”
DeBrusk, who turns 26 on Oct. 17, is 321 games into his career. It remains to be seen where he fits in the new coach’s lineup, and how Montgomery pushes his buttons.
“I think the biggest thing is realizing what they can do and trying to emphasize those strengths,” said Montgomery of his methods for developing young talent. “If you’re a player that possesses the puck, it’s going to be how long you have the puck on your stick in a game. If you’re a player that’s a big, physical player, how many turnovers are you creating and how well are you protecting pucks below the dots? If you’re an offensive defenseman, it’s how many times are you part of the rush, how often are you getting shots through at the point, how often are you going on the back side when we have puck possession on the offensive zone?
“So, I think it depends on what a player can do, and you try and focus on communicating those strengths with using practice habits that translate into game habits, following it up with video, and then putting icing on the cake with some analytics that could help them, because everyone now is very number-oriented and everyone wants results.”