After five games out with a lower-body injury, Jake DeBrusk announced his return to the Boston Bruins’ lineup Wednesday with a stat line completely opposite the way he was trending in his first six games before going down.
DeBrusk still hasn’t scored a goal because his third period shot that beat goaltender Alexandar Georgiev was ruled to have not crossed the goal line. But he landed seven shots on net (he’d had nine entering the Bruins’ 3-2 overtime win at the New York Rangers), attempted 14 shots (two were blocked, five missed the net) and assisted on Anders Bjork’s third-period score.
DeBrusk said after practice Thursday that he typically gives himself six-game segments to score before he decides to force his shot more. And although he was just coming back from injury, his first scoring chance in New York convinced him it was time to flip the switch.
“I was trying to find a play, trying to find a late guy, I think it was Jeremy [Lauzon] coming into the zone, and then I kind of shot it, I kind of muffed it … and I was like ‘that’s not happening to me again, I think I’m just going to force everything,’” DeBrusk said.
Now 24 and in his fourth NHL season, DeBrusk shouldn’t be letting himself off the hook during scoring droughts. So much of the Bruins’ success this season (like several before it) is going to rely on them getting secondary scoring beyond the first line, and DeBrusk is supposed to be one of the leaders in that department.
That’s why watching him play such a great all-around game — his three hits against the Rangers were as many as he’d had all season total — hammered home the idea that if DeBrusk’s tendency is to give himself some rope when the puck’s not going in, coach Bruce Cassidy is going to have to keep the left wing on a shorter leash.
This isn’t just about finishing. It’s about DeBrusk often becoming a lost puppy when he’s not scoring. He has the ability with his speed and strength to do the little things that make a player productive without getting in the goal column, but too often he disappears. Tellingly, DeBrusk has only been a healthy scratch once since he ascended to the NHL in the 2017-18 season, and that was a November game in his rookie year. Cassidy has given DeBrusk a lot of rope over the year.
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But the coach has to hang the threat of less playing time and possibly a spot in the press box in front of DeBrusk to make sure the player doesn’t become complacent, especially in a shortened season that leaves little time for hiccups.
Cassidy liked what he saw out of DeBrusk on Wednesday.
“One thing I saw was that he was willing to go in straight lines and work to get inside and then get it to the net,” Cassidy said after the win. “Certainly wasn’t trying to overpass, [he was] trying to just put pucks on net. And I think goal scorers do that and eventually they go in.
“I’d like to see that every night, he has that mentality, no matter who his center and winger is.”
DeBrusk found himself in sort of a perfect spot Wednesday, playing left wing with Charlie Coyle at center. Coyle can protect the puck and is always looking to dish it. The third line gets beneficial matchups at both ends of the ice. DeBrusk should be able to use his legs and, yes, his body to school some third- and fourth-liners on what made him the 14th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft and a 27-goal scorer in 2018-19.
As far as physicality, no one’s looking for him to plaster people into the board. But he should be a menace on the forecheck, separating players from the puck, forcing puck carriers to retreat and causing opponents to reload. That game has turned up in DeBrusk for stretches of both the regular season and playoffs. There’s no excuse for him not playing that way every night.
The Bruins are a little deeper right now, with Nick Ritchie exceeding expectations, Craig Smith fitting in and Jack Studnicka learning how to play wing in Providence. Anders Bjork is finding his game, and even Trent Frederic could be a top-nine wing option moving forward. DeBrusk has been dropped to the third line and lost his spot on the first power play unit to Ritchie. A regular spot in the lineup shouldn’t be promised to DeBrusk unless he builds off Wednesday night’s performance, doesn’t suffer much of a drop-off in the weeks ahead, and makes sure that he’s always contributing something to the Bruins’ cause even when he’s not scoring.