Superstars such as Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron deliver excellent performances every game. Zdeno Chara and Kevan Miller do not always go on the attack, but their coaches can depend on shutdown defensive play on each shift. Even a career AHLer such as Jordan Szwarz has grown to the point where he meets reasonable expectations on most of his journeys over the boards for the Bruins.
Then there are rookies.
Coaches love consistency. It’s one of the most elusive characteristics for NHL newbies to master.
Charlie McAvoy is an exception. The 19-year-old is already on track to be one of the best defensemen from his draft class. But most young players, in their pursuit of consistency, encounter peaks and valleys — often more of the latter than former.
Jake DeBrusk knows this well.
This past Saturday, the 21-year-old left wing wore a suit and tie at a game for the first time this season. Coach Bruce Cassidy believed DeBrusk’s legs had lost some of their juice. As with most players, skating is critical to DeBrusk’s production. If he cannot steam up and down the left side and barrel to the net, his hands and vision lose some of their relevancy.
Thus the seat.
“It’s one of those situations you never want to be in as a player, especially when you’re healthy,” DeBrusk said of his visit to TD Garden’s ninth floor. “It’s just one of those different perspectives on the game. I don’t think it’s necessarily one thing, but a lot of things I can see from up there and things I can take into the next game.”
Cassidy’s plan is for DeBrusk to merge back into NHL traffic Wednesday against Anaheim. From six stories above ice level, good players usually understand they have more time and space than when they’re face to face with big, strong, and angry opponents.
“The game is so easy from up top,” said the injured David Krejci, who will be a game-time decision Wednesday. “I wish I had your job so I could just write.”
DeBrusk projects to be both a good NHLer and a bright student. The rookie should be better the next time he pulls on his uniform, even if he is a deeper thinker than most, which could mess with his head on his first shift.
“I believe it’s a negative thing,” DeBrusk said of the sitdown. “It’s never good when you’re not out there helping your team. There’s certain reasons why it happened. That’s where I’m taking a positive approach to changing those things so it doesn’t happen again.
“It’s just taking it day by day, getting better. There’s things I learned for sure. Guys have been really helpful in that aspect. Lots of them have been scratched in their long careers.”
The trouble for the Bruins is how many of DeBrusk’s teammates have similar profiles.
Anders Bjork may not play against Anaheim because of an undisclosed injury, the likely outcome of his car-crash collision with Toronto’s Matt Martin Saturday. If and when Bjork plays, he will be trying to snap a 10-game goal-scoring drought. Rob O’Gara was on the ice for two of Toronto’s four goals Saturday. The night before, O’Gara was a healthy scratch.
Meanwhile, McAvoy, Danton Heinen, and Sean Kuraly are trending the right way. McAvoy landed three shots in 21:30 of ice time against Toronto. Heinen dug out the puck on the wall in the offensive zone, leading to Frank Vatrano’s goal. Kuraly, parked after taking three minors against San Jose Oct. 26, is providing straight-line presence.
Even if Bjork is out, fellow rookie Peter Cehlarik would likely take his spot. Cehlarik has yet to play an NHL game this season. The second-year pro has just 11 varsity appearances on his résumé.
If DeBrusk goes back in, O’Gara plays over Paul Postma, and the Cehlarik-Bjork flip takes place, six of Cassidy’s 18 skaters will be rookies. Last Friday, when the Golden Knights beat Winnipeg, 5-2, the expansion team had just one rookie among its skaters: former Boston College forward Alex Tuch. Vegas, safely within the West’s top eight, is proof that even expansion franchises can absorb the presence of a lone rookie sprinkled into a veteran lineup. Experienced players such as David Perron, James Neal, and ex-Bruin Reilly Smith can give coach Gerard Gallant smoother shifts.
Cassidy, meanwhile, has to weather a nightly cluster of sometimes erratic performances from his youngsters. Because of injuries, he has just one dependable three-zone forward combination in Bergeron and David Pastrnak. Even the 21-year-old Pastrnak had some of his third-period shifts taken away against Minnesota because of his softness on the puck.
This is where Cassidy needs his secondary tier of veterans — Miller, Torey Krug, Riley Nash, Tim Schaller — to elevate their games, both to support Bergeron and make up for the rookies’ jagged play.
“That’s when it helps that a guy like Szwarz comes up and gives us some good, solid minutes,” Cassidy said. “That’s where Riley Nash has to step up in penalty-kill and shutdown situations.
“Sean Kuraly has done a pretty good job. Early in the year, he was having a tough time. Now he’s settled in and given us some good energy, had his chances to score most nights, added some secondary scoring. We rely on those guys a little more than you normally would.”
The Bruins are fully boarded on the youth train. It rarely travels in a straight line.